Saturday, January 31, 2009

Obama’s ‘major Islamic forum’ meeting should be held in Bangladesh?

This came from Seth Mandel, Managing Editor, The Jewish State. Notwithstanding his stronger support for beleaguered Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, this article is worth reading. Below are some relevant texts:

On Aug. 1, 2007, President Barack Obama (then a candidate and senator) told a Washington, D.C. audience that in his first 100 days as president, he would take a bold step toward reforming our communication with the Muslim world. He would, he said, “travel to a major Islamic forum and deliver an address to redefine our struggle.” Since then, various news outlets, columnists, talking heads, and bloggers speculated on which Muslim country that would be, and offered their own suggestions. [Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Iraq, and Afghanistan have been common suggestions.]

So, now that Obama is our president, let me offer my counsel: the address should be given in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s recent political turmoil is headspinning. In late 2006/early 2007, the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by Khaleda Zia, was busy rigging the elections scheduled for January 2007. The Bangladeshi army responded by staging an unannounced coup, running a caretaker government, and expelling both Zia and the opposition Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina Wajed. But as Americans began to celebrate the New Year of 2009, Bangladeshis were counting the votes in an election so much cleaner than usual that the Economist opened its post-election article thus: “It went better than anyone dared hope.”

The election was a landslide in favor of Awami League. And if the symbolism of any election could compete with Obama’s, it was this one. Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s independence leader, founding father, and first president.

In addition, BNP has Islamist political allies, and the army’s order-and-command tunnel vision prevented it from crossing the country’s Islamists during its own caretaker administration. Though Awami has run corrupt governments itself in the past, its massive victory was an almost shocking step away from Islamist control. Being that 70 percent of Bangladesh’s registered voters participated in the election, that step may have been a public referendum on radical Islam as well—though it’s too soon to know for sure.

In all, the Bangladeshi election was a vivid demonstration of exactly what the West hopes Muslim countries will do: hold free and fair elections, and move toward a moderate expression of Islam’s tenets.

That is one reason Obama should speak in Bangladesh. There is much work to be done still in Bangladesh, and Obama can simultaneously commend its progress while recognizing its challenges.

The full story is here.

Bangladesh corruption widespread, but decreasing: Gallop poll

Nothing to cheer about, the data are old. The survey was carried in May-June 2008. What is worth noting Gallop chose to release this story exactly one-month after Awami League's tsunami victory. From:

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When the Awami League in December 2008 won Bangladesh's parliamentary elections in a landslide, it inherited the previous government's pledge to rid the country of corruption. During the military-backed, caretaker government's two-year tenure, Gallup asked Bangladeshis about their views on corruption, finding a majority saying that the level of corruption in the country is lower (73%) than it was five years ago.

Bangladesh's caretaker government focused on battling corruption in the country by jailing many public and business officials on charges of corruption. What's more, the government rejuvenated the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), which ensures investigates and helps convict political individuals for misusing their political power. At the time of the Gallup Poll, the reaction of the Bangladeshi people appears to be extremely favorable, as 79% say the government is doing enough to fight corruption.

With the Awami League now in power and the new Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, sworn in, it is important that Bangladesh's new leaders work to build on the progress made rather than reverse the momentum.

The Bangladesh Election Commission this week reported having received more than 100 complaints regarding December's parliamentary elections, including allegations of voter intimidation, ballot box stuffing, and violence against polling agents. In such a climate, there is little doubt the question of corruption is going away.

While a majority of Bangladeshis believe progress has been made with regard to corruption in their country, 75% still perceive it to be a widespread problem in their government, a number that has remained unchanged since 2007 and has increased slightly since 2006.

The results of the Gallup Polls support the view that even in the face of positive change, the level of corruption in Bangladesh will still be a major point of discussion and remain an area in which Bangladeshis have a high level of doubt and uncertainty.

Bottom Line

In assessing relative successes in Bangladesh, it is clearly understood that no winning parties are free from the sins of corruption.

One area in which the Awami League can show great efforts and commitments to fighting corruption is to ensure that individuals convicted of corruption play no active future role in the government. Also, the new government should make certain that the ACC plays a significant role in the governance of the future political activities of Bangladesh.

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews with 1,000 adults in Bangladesh, aged 15 and older, conducted May 28-June 13, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3.5 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Human Rights Watch's 13-point agenda for Bangladesh

Brad Adams, Executive Director, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch has written a letter to Bangladesh's new Prime Minister requesting to address major human rights problems that have been ignored by successive governments.

The letter makes specific recommendations for reform on subjects such as extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detention, corruption, and the role of the Rapid Action Battalion and Directorate General for Forces Intelligence. Here is the full text of the letter:

Dear Prime Minister,

Congratulations on your recent election success. As you know, Human Rights Watch has consistently raised human rights issues with the interim government put in place and supported by the army from January 2007-December 2008. We have also raised concerns with its predecessor, the coalition headed by the Bangladesh National Party.

The Awami League and its allies have a unique opportunity and the responsibility to address major human rights problems that have been ignored by successive governments. We hope that with the strong mandate you and your party have obtained that you will tackle the very serious abuses that Bangladeshis face at the hands of the security forces and others.

I urge your government to use the February session of the UN Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review to show the priority it places on addressing longstanding human rights problems by making concrete and specific commitments. We offer suggestions below. This will be an early test for your government.

In order to ensure that Bangladesh lives up to its obligations under the Bangladeshi constitution and international human rights law, we urge you and your government to give high priority to the following issues:

Extrajudicial executions and torture
Since the establishment of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in mid-2004, RAB and the police have jointly executed well over a thousand people in what they often refer to as "crossfire killings." Many, and probably most, of those killed in "crossfire" have been killed not in crossfire but have been executed in custody after being subjected to torture.

Torture generally appears to be a routine feature in criminal investigations, as well as a means for law enforcement officials to extort money. Legal provisions that give the authorities a broad mandate to arrest and detain people without a warrant have contributed to these problems.

An agency of particular concern is the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), which has been used by successive governments to silence opposition politicians and other perceived government critics. The agency has over the years been responsible for numerous arbitrary arrests and acts of torture.

Since the establishment of Bangladesh as an independent state, members of the security forces have committed violations of human rights without being prosecuted for their actions. This has resulted in almost total impunity for human rights abuses.

Arbitrary detentions
As you and members of the Awami League, the opposition Bangladesh National Party, and others experienced under the caretaker government, arbitrary detentions are a widespread problem in Bangladesh. But this is not a new problem. Many Bangladeshis, whether prominent individuals such as yourself or average rural dwellers, have for many years experienced the scourge of arbitrary detention by the security forces. We hope you will make ending this practice among the highest priorities of your administration.

In particular, we urge you to repeal the Special Powers Act, 1974, which has over the years been misused for political and other reasons to keep thousands of people detained for long periods of time without due process and a chance to challenge their detention before an independent tribunal. Detentions have often been based on mere allegations or politically motivated grounds. Under the military-backed caretaker government, the Special Powers Act was frequently used. The Act and its implementation have been repeatedly criticized by the Supreme Court, but remains in force despite past commitments by the political parties to have it repealed.

Many other individuals have been also been arbitrarily detained in situations in which the Act has not been invoked. They have been denied the right to counsel, denied the right to be produced in court in a timely manner, denied their right to a speedy trial without undue delay, and denied the right to trial before an independent tribunal.

Protection of Minorities and Women
Ethnic and religious minorities have since long been victims of intimidation, discrimination and land grabbing. According to one study, more than one million Hindu households have lost their land over the past 40 years through abuse and arbitrary application of the Enemy Property Act 1965 and the Vested Property Act 1974. The Vested Property Return Act of 2001, which provides for property to be returned to its original owners, has been ineffectual and land loss has continued at an alarming rate. There are continuous reports of indigenous groups, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and other parts of the country, being subjected to land grabbing, unlawful evictions in the name of development, and destruction of their homes and property.

The Ahmadis have been subjected to violent attacks as fundamentalists demand that they be declared non-Muslims, thereby violating their religious freedom.

Discrimination against women is common in both public and private spheres. Domestic violence is a daily reality for many women and dowry-related crimes are reported to be increasing. Sexual minorities are also subject to discrimination and consensual homosexual conduct is a crime.

Bangladesh has long been considered one of the most corrupt countries in the world (routinely placed at or near the bottom of Transparency International's index). Corruption has had a severely negative impact on the Bangladeshi people's enjoyment of economic and social rights. It is essential that the government undertakes effective measures to address the problem of corruption and that it ensures that all such efforts are undertaken with full regard to international human rights norms and international and domestic fair trial standards. The counter-corruption efforts of the caretaker government were marred by arbitrary and illegal detentions and reports of torture and mistreatment in custody in order to obtain confessions. These practices must end.

The Anti-Terrorism Ordinance, 2008, sets out an overly broad definition of terrorist acts, including mere property crimes as well as attacks targeting individuals, contrary to United Nations recommendations. It criminalizes speech meant to support or "bolster the activities of" a banned organization, without showing that such statements constitute incitement of criminal conduct. The new law also allows convictions for financing terrorism based on mere suspicion of criminal conduct, violating the basic criminal law requirement of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Human Rights Watch expressed its concerns about the Ordinance in a June 2008 statement. Parliament should either allow the Ordinance to lapse or amend it to bring it into conformity with international law before codifying it into Bangladeshi law. The government and parliament should also ensure that any new laws drafted on the subject are developed through a thorough public consultative process.

Death penalty
There are currently about one thousand people on death row awaiting execution. Through a resolution adopted in December 2007, the UN General Assembly has called for a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty. As the death penalty is a punishment of an inherently cruel, inhuman and final nature, we urge the government to take immediate steps to abolish it.

To address the above problems, Human Rights Watch urges the government to:

1. Take all necessary measures to put an end to the security forces' involvement in extrajudicial executions, acts of torture and other abuses of human rights.
Address impunity by ensuring that all human rights violations are thoroughly investigated and that those responsible, regardless of rank and political affiliation, are prosecuted and brought to justice.

2. Disband RAB which has since the outset based its operating culture on practices such as extrajudicial killings. In the event RAB is retained we urge you to establish an independent commission to assess RAB's performance, to identify those believed to be responsible for serious violations such as extra judicial killings who should be excluded from a reformed RAB and prosecuted, and develop an action plan to transform RAB into an agency that operates within the law and with full respect for international human rights norms.

3. Disband DGFI which has too long depended on illegal practices such as arbitrary detentions and torture. In the event that DGFI is retained we urge you to establish an independent commission to assess DGFI's performance, identify those believed to be responsible for serious violations such as torture who should be should be excluded from a reformed DGFI and prosecuted, and develop an action plan to transform DGFI into an agency that operates within the law and with full respect for international human rights norms. DGFI's operations should be strictly limited to lawful military intelligence activities and in no circumstances should it engage in surveillance of the political opposition and critics of the regime.

4. Amend Section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and any other legal provisions that give the authorities overly broad detention powers which facilitate torture and other human rights abuses.

Human Rights Watch urges the government and parliament to change existing law to:

5. Amend the military legislation currently in force and the Armed Police Battalion Ordinance to ensure that members of the armed forces and RAB involved in violations of human rights are tried under the civilian criminal justice system.
Amend all legal provisions, such as articles 132 and 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which in effect shield law enforcement officials from being held to account for violations of human rights.

6. Initiate a process, in accordance with stated intentions, for bringing to trial those responsible for war crimes such as acts of murder, rape and wanton destruction and pillage of civilian property, in connection with the 1971-war.
Repeal the Special Powers Act, which has been used to carry out arbitrary detentions for many years.

7. Review existing legislation, such as the Vested Property Act, which has allegedly contributed to large scale land loss among members of the Hindu minority. Take effective action to ensure that ethnic and religious minorities are protected from land grabbing, intimidation and discrimination.

8. Provide training on gender sensitivity to all law enforcement officials.
Finalize the draft law on domestic violence and ensure that it is consistent with international standards and that it is implemented effectively.

9. Repeal Section 377 of the criminal code, which criminalizes consensual homosexual conduct.

10. Human Rights Watch further urges the Bangladeshi government to make international legal commitments to promote and protect human rights by:

Acceding to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Acceding to the Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Acceding to the Second Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Ratify the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

11. Ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

12. Ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

13. Remove declarations and lift reservations made to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Covenant on Civil of Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

We know this is a big agenda. But we also know that with the majority your government enjoys in parliament you have an historic opportunity to engage in long overdue reform. We urge you and your government to grasp this opportunity to bring real change to the lives of Bangladeshis.

Thank you for your consideration. We look forward to discussing these and other human rights issues in greater detail with you and the members of your government.


Brad Adams

Executive Director

Asia Division

Cc: Minister of Foreign Affairs: Dr. Dipu Moni; Minister of Home Affairs: Advocate Sahara Khatun; Minister of Law, Justice & Parliamentary Affairs: Barrister Shafique Ahmed

Bangladesh's politics back to normal: Economist

An inauspicious rebirth for parliamentary democracy

PARLIAMENT in Dhaka was this week restored to its intended use; parliamentarians, sadly, returned to their old abuses. A makeshift prison for much of the two years, ending in December 2008, that Bangladesh was ruled by an army-backed interim government, the parliament complex housed the leaders of the two big political parties: Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League (AL) and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

On January 25th, however, a month after the league won a general election by a landslide, parliament reconvened for the first time. True to old form, the opposition BNP walked out in protest. The reason was bizarre: it claimed that the president, Iajuddin Ahmed—whom the BNP had picked in late 2006 as the head of a caretaker government to oversee (and rig) an election due in January 2007—had violated the constitution by failing to hold the vote on time. Three days later, it walked out again, miffed at seating arrangements.

On January 22nd the league had won another landslide victory; this time in elections in the country’s 481 upazilas (subdistricts). Candidates it backed won more than two-thirds of the seats. But unlike the general election, these polls were dodgy. Stuffing of ballot boxes, “capturing” of polling booths and voter intimidation were rife. Three people were killed, 150 injured. Observers blamed both parties.

Both BNP and AL governments have failed to hold local elections, preferring to grant MPs complete control over lucrative development spending in their fiefs. The interim government forced the parties to hold them in the hope of reforming the highly centralised political structure.

The new AL government presents itself as the agent of “change”. But its policies mostly rely on institutional improvements made by the interim regime: an effective Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC); an independent Election Commission and judiciary; and the reform of the country’s hugely inefficient public sector. The government is also to ratify most of the laws made by the interim government (otherwise, doubt might be cast on the validity of the election it won). But the fear is that it and the BNP will shake off the straitjacket designed to prevent their return to their past confrontational excesses.

Mercifully for the new government, the impact of the global economic downturn has so far been limited. The capital account is in effect closed, which has proved a blessing. But the economy is built on clothing exports, and remittances from the Gulf. Both will inevitably suffer. The government has vowed to reduce the number of poor people from 65m to 45m during its five-year term, tackle inflation, terrorism and a crippling power crisis, and pursue better relations with India, its huge, economically important neighbour. This month it slashed fertiliser prices by half, cut the price of diesel, and revived powers to fix the prices of essential commodities.

The government’s other ambitious project is the prosecution of those accused of war crimes during the war of independence in 1971. Many of the alleged perpetrators are still active in politics, mostly as members of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a large Islamist party that did badly in the election. The interim government did not pursue war crimes, in part because of the feared economic ramifications: Saudi Arabia, a big source of remittances, objects to trials. But Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Mujibur Rahman, the murdered independence leader, said this week that she was “pledge-bound” to bring war criminals to justice.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bangladesh: a case of non-intervention?

A very strange analysis indeed! So, we should be happy that we got back so-called democracy without US military's help! And a warning too!: our nascent democracy is still 'very fragile', and 'the potential for implosion or reversal ( to another 1/11 or similar formula) is a reality!

Read it here.

If you look for an empiric case study for why it might be better to not intervene in sovereign affairs of another country as a characteristic of an improved US Foreign Policy, one could do worse than consider the two examples of Pakistan and Bangladesh. While there are stark differences between the two, there are also similarities of note. Both are geographically close and both emerging from a period of military governance towards democracy. Both are primarily Muslim, and have crippling poverty issues. Pakistan has been fully engaged in US and Western diplomacy. Bangladesh has been monitored but has not had the same degree of focus. Pakistan is increasing radicalized, has been accused of state sponsored terrorism, is home to growing numbers of Pakistan Taliban, is a potentially volatile nuclear power, and is edging closer to economic and civil disobedience.

Pakistan is being influenced through US financing, diplomatic pressure and is undergoing regular strikes in its territories by US drone aircraft, that disappointingly seems to be an apparent policy continuance under the new Obama Administration. A recent US audit of how committed Pakistan is to combating terrorism, a condition of it continuing to receive financial aid, has resulted in the US deducted $55 million under its reimbursement programme for expenses incurred by Pakistan after auditors raised objections to a claim submitted by the country. US authorities deducted the amount while releasing only $101 million out of Pakistan’s claim of $156 million for expenses incurred on the campaign against terrorism till April 2008. Pakistan has seen the effect of engaged US diplomacy, and while desperate for funds, seems less than impressed by the results. Pakistan is still a country divided - military, intelligence, religious and tribal factions are all vying for supremacy. It is a case of where US influence has failed to deliver the desired effects.

Bangladesh, however, has just undergone free, non-violent elections. Regional Observer, Charles Tannock reported of the Bangladesh elections that “…the new electoral register was more robust than in many Western countries, with a photo ID picture alongside each elector. The violence that had been widespread in previous elections was entirely absent, with the security services’ professionalism in policing the elections - and the army’s willingness to return voluntarily to its barracks - playing a key role.” What may be surprising to many observers in the West is that the new Bangladesh Prime Minister is a woman, Sheikh Hasina, an historic feat that has still escaped the US. In addition, seventeen directly elected Bangladeshi female parliamentarians took up their seats on 25 January, and 45 more are set to join them soon, meaning 62 women out of 345 will sit in the unicameral (single legislative chamber) legislature. That is a higher percentage than many of the Western governments, and all this in a Muslim country.

It is worth while reading an extract of Tannock’s report to see how effectively the people of Bangladesh resisted the calls of the Islamic factions during this election process, unlike many other countries put in the same situation:

“To some extent, it is surprising that the Islamist parties did not do better, considering their success elsewhere in mobilizing the most marginalized and vulnerable in society. If the Awami League is unable to address systematic poverty and social inequality, Islamism may well yet succeed in rallying the impoverished to its banner. The Jamaat-e-Islami Party, indeed, told me that they had a 30-year agenda to introduce Sharia law into Bangladesh. The examples of Hamas and Hizbullah provide a salutary reminder of the challenges faced by the new government in Bangladesh. Although these groups are better known internationally for their militancy against Israel, they have established strong political support by providing organized social services such as schools and clinics for poor people. Hamas and Hizbullah have prospered because the governing authorities were either unable or unwilling to address grassroots poverty. In the case of Hamas, this displacement was due largely to the massive corruption of the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat, whose cronies pocketed billions of dollars intended to alleviate poverty and suffering in the Gaza Strip.

With its constitutional majority, the government should ensure this outcome by restoring the 1972 constitution, which established Bangladesh as a secular democratic state. Bangladesh is a country rich with human potential, but that potential can only be realized by making poor people’s needs - which Islamists around the world have previously made their own political territory - the new government’s top priority.“

None of this is to day that Bangladesh is out of the woods. It is still very fragile, and the potential for implosion or reversal is a reality. However, it has made massive strides in the right direction. It has ended a period of military totalitarian rule voluntarily, undertaken free and robust elections and moved towards transparent civil governance all without a US military boot in their sovereign borders. There may well be a moral here that encouragement and enablement are more effective than military threat or financial leverage. We need to keep an eye on the Bangladesh experiment but at the moment, in these embryonic days, it appears to be moving in the right direction in stark contrast to the lack of progress in Pakistan.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Offline Gmail by Google


Google will begin to offer browser-based offline access to its Gmail
Webmail application, a much-awaited feature.

This functionality, which will allow people to use the Gmail interface
when disconnected from the Internet, has been expected since mid-2007.

That's when Google introduced Gears, a browser plug-in designed to provide
offline access to Web-hosted applications like Gmail.

Gears is currently used for offline access to several Web applications
from Google, like the Reader RSS manager and the Docs word processor, and
from other providers like Zoho, which uses it for offline access to its
e-mail and word processing browser-based applications.

Rajen Sheth, senior product manager for Google Apps, said that applying
Gears to Gmail has been a very complex task, primarily because of the high
volume of messages accounts can store. "Gmail was a tough hurdle," he

Google ruled out the option of letting users replicate their entire Gmail
inboxes to their PCs, which in many cases would translate into gigabytes
of data flowing to people's hard drives. It instead developed algorithms
that will automatically determine which messages should be downloaded to
PCs, taking into consideration a variety of factors that reflect their
level of importance to the user, he said. At this point, end-users will
not be able to tweak these settings manually.

The fuss about parliament seating plan in Bangladesh

If you think the current fuss about parliament seating plan is happening only in Bangladesh, then look at this. Breaking tradition, some of the ruling Sri Lankan MPs have been allocated seats in the opposition side while special arrangements are being made to offer seats to opposition MPS on the treasury side. Good for them that the life is not ending being seated in either of the side!

In New Zealand, government parties sit on the Speaker’s right while opposition parties sit on the Speaker‘s left. For detail of their seat plan, visit here. The graphical presentation on New Zealand’s debating chamber is here. The Canadian Senate seating plan is here. The seating plan of the Australian House of Representatives Chamber is here.

The leader of the opposition with members sits on the left of the Speaker in the British Parliament, Indian Lok Sabha and West Bengal Provincial Assembly. See the seating arrangements in the House of Commons.

The bottom line for Bangladeshi MPs is: no matter where you are seated, please discharge your duties preperly.

A bumpy road for Bangladesh's new government: Newsweek

Read Newsweek's Jeremy Kahn's story on Bangladesh's new government challenges. Also read comments section, rebuking many of writer's self-styled assumptions.

Good News in Dhaka?
Democracy returns, raising hope that Bangladesh can halt the outflow of immigrants—and terrorists.

Jeremy Kahn, NEWSWEEK
From the magazine issue dated Feb 2, 2009

Bangladesh is typically seen as one of the world's worst basket cases. Desperately poor, racked by environmental disasters and plagued by corrupt and ineffective government, its chief export has long been its own people. Every year, several hundred thousand impoverished Bangla-deshis leave home in search of better opportunities abroad. Just last week, a rights group in Bangkok accused the Thai military of forcing up to 1,000 Bangladeshi migrants, who'd attempted to reach the country in flimsy boats, back out to sea, where many of them are believed to have drowned.

Bangladesh has also lately attracted the worried attention of Western security agencies due to the growing Islamic radicalism of its 150 million Muslims. The country has long harbored various insurgent groups seeking independence in India's remote northeast. But in the last few years, it has also begun to play host to a variety of jihadi groups suspected of helping to carry out attacks against both Western and Indian targets, including the 2008 bombings in Jaipur and Delhi.

This month, however, featured some rare good news from Dhaka. Sheikh Hasina, the 61-year-old daughter of the country's slain independence leader, was sworn in as prime minister after an election deemed largely free and fair, signaling Bangladesh's return to democracy after nearly two years under a military-backed caretaker government. It was a remarkable turn: the coup leaders voluntarily ceded control back to the people. Even more impressive, thanks to a series of electoral reforms the caretaker government put in place, Bangladeshi democracy is arguably in far better shape today than it was in 2007, when it was pushed aside.

In the late December election, Hasina's Awami League won a landslide victory with none of the fraud and bloodshed that have marred previous polls and that prompted the army to seize power two years ago. Anti-incumbency was the election's primary theme, says Mustafizur Rahman, executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a think tank in Dhaka. Both the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which controlled parliament from 2001 through 2006, and the Awami League, which held power from 1996 to 2001, have a history of dirty politics. But the Awami League did a far better job presenting "new faces" this time around, Rahman says. That helped it win an enviable mandate: along with its allies, the League now controls 260 of the parliament's 300 seats.

But Hasina's government faces a daunting array of challenges. The most pressing of these is inflation, which has hovered above 10 percent for much of the year. Forty percent of the country's population lives on less than one dollar a day. And recent price hikes have pushed some four million Bangladeshis back below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. Hasina has vowed to lower food costs immediately, and will be helped by slumping global commodity prices. If she can improve food security, that could well convince more of her countrymen to stay put, instead of emigrating.

Yet thanks to other economic woes, the government will be hard-pressed to sustain the food subsidies on which Bangladeshis depend. Exports to the United States and Europe, Bangladesh's biggest overseas markets, have crashed since the recession hit, and remittances from the nine million Bangladeshis working abroad—a key source of the government's hard currency—have plummeted. The World Bank estimates that GDP growth could drop below 5 percent this year, too slow for the country to meet its goal of halving the number of people living in poverty by 2015.

Then there is the looming energy crisis. Bangladesh currently produces enough power to meet just 60 percent of its demand, and recent gas shortages have shuttered factories, dealing a further blow to the teetering economy.

Still, India and Western powers hope the new government will address their other big source of concern: Bangladesh-based terrorism. Analysts argue that the Awami League tilts toward New Delhi and may grant its requests to crack down. And Bangladesh's main Islamist party saw its parliamentary holdings drop from 17 seats to 2 in the December poll, suggesting the public is disillusioned with Islamic radicalism. Hasina may also have a personal motivation to crack down on extremists: one jihadi group tried to assassinate her in 2004.

India, though, is not taking any chances. Earlier this month, New Delhi decided to speed construction of a fence along the two countries' shared 4,000km border—a sign of how far Bangladesh still has to come.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Battle of nerves around TIFA in Bangladesh

A diplomatic battle of nerves is emerging around the proposed Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) which the USA is pushing hard to get signed by the Bangladesh Government. The Communist Party of Bangladesh and Revolutionary Workers’ Party of Bangladesh have already protested the move saying the US has ill motive of establishing complete control over Bangladesh.

Local media are also positioning themselves around the emerging debate. The Daily Star completely blacked-out CPB and RWPB’s media statement on TIFA, while left-leaning New Age produced four pieces today, which include: a front-page article, CPB’s statement, an editorial, and an analysis by Oxfam of Great Britain, the latter was also sent to Commerce Minister Faruk Khan as a part of a letter. The editorial suggested having a debate on the draft TIFA agreement in the parliament.

The revised TIFA draft of 2007 is not available in the public domain, however, a draft in 2005, available here , mentions of the effectiveness of a Bilateral Investment Treaty, signed between Bangladesh and the USA on 12th March 1986 and enforced on 25th July 1989.

A careful look into the BIT document shows both parties enjoy right to maintain limited exceptions in some sectors or matters. Page 16 of this document shows Bangladesh would provide exceptions to a number of items and these include, among others: arms and ammunition and allied defense equipment, atomic energy, mechanized forest extraction, and communication satellite.

Those opposing the draft TIFA agreement should first research which sectoral exception so far had been allowed by the Bangladesh Government under the provisions of BIT.

It would be interesting to see how the Bangladesh Government handles TIFA debate as the US appears to be flexing its muscle to get it signed as soon as possible. Two earlier attempts failed because of strong opposition by the left-wing political parties.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Time for public education on Bangladesh's parliament

Now that the first session of the ninth parliament has begun in Bangladesh, it is a high time that a public education campaign is launched to aware people on functioning and modalities of the Jatiya Sangsad.

Of course, the Constitution of Bangladesh is the prime source for this public education. For a reader-friendly version on various parliamentary committees, the process of making laws and role of the MPs, role of the Speaker and the people's role in the law making process, you may download this Bangla material by TIB. It will help parliamentarians, journalists, students and others keen to find out about the working of Parliament.

The Rule of Procedures which governs the whole gamut of functioning of the Bangladesh Parliament is available here.

A one-stop site for all things about the Bangladesh Parliament is Bangladesh Parliament Legislative Centre, supported by UNDP.

For serious researchers, this book by Nizam Ahmed (2002) could provide an insightful guide that examines the 'new' parliament since the 1990s.

Formula for military intervention in Bangladesh

Former Army Chief Lt Gen (retd) Harun Ar Rashid has given a very simple and widely-used formula for military intervention in Bangladesh: 'if the performance of the government is good, the chance of a military intervention is low', he told K S Manjunath of the Business Standard.

He spoke of improving bilateral ties between India and Bangladesh and felt Dhaka has to recognise that its “big neighbour” (India) needs it as much as it needs the big neighbour’s help.

Read the full interview here.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Bangladesh: the nature's disaster labratory

The Nature magazine in its online edition today has carried a story on how Bangladesh is already suffering the ill effects of rising global greenhouse gas emissions.

It quoted Ainun Nishat of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)who said:'Bangladesh is nature's laboratory on disasters'.

Bangladesh is threatened with encroaching seas, dwindling water supplies and fiercer storms, and according to NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies more extreme changes could be in store.

Read the full story here.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Economist Intelligence Unit on Bangladesh

Key highlights from EIU's Janaury report on Bangladesh:

1. The Awami League (AL) is expected to serve a full term in office, having secured a huge parliamentary majority at the December 2008 general election.

2. The likely monopolisation of parliament by the AL for the next few years raises the risk of large street protests, a tactic that has been used in the past to express opposition to the government.

Selected comments on domestic political scenes:

1. Although the previous, caretaker government can take credit for creating the conditions for the most peaceful parliamentary election in a decade, the durability of these conditions of calm is far from assured. The risk of mass political protests, which characterised the political scene before the introduction of emergency rule at the start of 2007, persists.

2.It is too early to judge whether the army will withdraw completely from the political stage...the army’s involvement in an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign at least temporarily ended the culture of total impunity that had previously prevailed.

3. The creation of a National Security Council, which would have given the army a constitutional role in politics, appears unlikely to go ahead.

4. Sheikh Hasina is likely to need the army for her own protection (she narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in 2004) and to help thwart attempts by the BNP to resurrect the use of hartals (mass strikes involving street protests) as a tool of political opposition. An indication of whether Sheikh Hasina has come to an agreement with the army, as many believe she did prior to the election, will be the extent of new appointments in the armed forces.

‘Conversation’ with Bangladesh poor launched

From: Asia News:

A TEAM of world-class poverty researchers and architects are leaving for Bangladesh to launch an annual ‘conversation’ with people living in extreme poverty.

This year’s theme of the ‘Rajendrapur Conversation’ organised by the Brooks World Poverty Institute (BWPI) at The University of Manchester will be global warming and will take place from 24 to 28 January.

It will provide a unique opportunity for the poor of Bangladesh capital, Dhaka to discuss their experiences and ideas on adapting cities to climate change with world renowned experts.

It will result in an action plan and a series of pilot projects to be announced at the International Conference on Urban Poverty and Climate Change in Dhaka on January 28.

Bangladesh upazila election: Final Results

Awami League supported candidates 316
BNP supported candidates 74
Jaamat supported candidates 22
Jatiya Party supported candidates 13
Others 48

Total 473

China-India mulling 'partial war?

A border dispute could become the spark that launches China and India into a military conflict, with Chinese strategists resurrecting the concept of a "partial war" to recover what they call "Southern Tibet," the region India calls "Arunachal Pradesh.

Quoting Joseph Farah's G2 Bulletin, the worldnetdaily said, the area in northeast India has a 650-mile unfenced border with China, which lays claim to the region and refers to it as Southern Tibet.

Some of the threats are emanating from Chinese publications that reflect the opinion of the Chinese leadership without making official comments.

For example, the China Institute of International Strategic Studies, or IISS, has said it visualizes "two crises" for the People's Liberation Army in the immediate future. One was the succession in the North Korean leadership should Kim Jong-Il die.

The other was India's continued presence in territory China claims as its own.

India regards Arunachal Pradesh as the 24th state in the Indian Union. Yet China still claims much of it as part of the Tibet Autonomous Region and may be prepared to launch an action to regain it.

Ironically, the veiled threat comes at a time when China looks upon its relationship with India as being in the "best period" of their joint history.

Called the "land of the rising sun," Arunachal Pradesh means "land of the dawn lit mountains," since it is in the Himalayas.

The Burma Road, known to have helped supply China during World War II, passes through the region. Burma, or Myanmar, borders on the East.

The 650-mile Chinese-Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh is separated by the so-called McMahon Line, also known as the Line of Actual Control.

The dispute dates back to the time India was ruled by Britain, whose officials in 1914 held a conference over the boundary. In 1962, China and India fought a serious border war, with Chinese troops advancing well into Arunachal Pradesh but later withdrawing. The region flared up again in 1986.

Now, the region is becoming a focal point again.

A Chinese military website that reflects official positions observed that the border issue may be symbolic of how India looks upon China as the "greatest obstacle" to its rise.

The website suggested that the border dispute over Southern Tibet constitutes a security threat to China and that Beijing may need to adopt a strategy to weaken control of the Indian central government.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bangladesh upazila election preliminary results

This is as of 11:25 PM.

According to ATN, AL-supported candidates have won 32 posts of upazila chairman, while BNP, Jamaat and independents have secured 4 posts each.

According to UNB Badiuzzaman Badsha of AL was unofficially elected chairman of Nalitabari upazila in Sherpur district. He got 55,484 votes while his nearest rival Abdus Salam, Independent, secured 45,124 votes.

Shah Mohammad Borhan was unofficially elected chairman of Nakla upazila in Sherpur district. He polled 51,994 votes while his nearest rival Zahid Hossain Badsha of BNP got 11,651 votes.

In Faridpur district, following candidates was declared elected chairman of the upazila:

Alphadana - Khan Belayet Hossain - AL
Boalmari - MM Mosharraf Hossain - AL
Madhukhali - Mofizur Rahman Manju - AL
Bhanga - Sudhin Sarkar Mondal - CPB
Nagarkanda - Moniruzzaman Sardar - AL
Sadarpur - Sattar Fakir - AL

Bangladesh Upazila Election: Update at 7:45 PM BST

According to news agency UNB, upazila polls was held amid some incidents of clash, ballot hijack, arrest; Election to six UZs postponed for troubles before and during polls. CEC was upset about low turn-out. Allegation of influence by a Minister and a MP has also been raised by the Election Commission. BNP has alleged of wide-spred rigging. Here is the full story:

Dhaka, Jan 22 (UNB) - The crucial election to Upazila Parishads was held simultaneously across the country Thursday amid clashes and ballot hijack at a number of polling centers that prompted the Election Commission to call off the polls in six upazilas.

Reports from UNB correspondents in 18 districts said at least 92 people were injured in incidents of poll violence while about 30 others, including election officers, arrested during the polls, held for a third time since the introduction of this system of local administration.

The UNB district correspondents said violence and irregularities occurred in Bhola, Pabna, Chandpur, Barguna, Munshiganj, Comilla, Bagerhat, Khulna, Patuakhali, Sherpur, Brahmanbaria, Laxmipur, Noakhali, Sirajganj, Narayanganj, Mymensingh, Sylhet, Nilphamari and Dhaka’s Keraniganj.

Bera Thana OC Maniruzzaman in Pabna was among 22 people injured in separate clashes in the district while 20 others, including a policeman, two ansar members and a Navy detective, were hurt in a clash in Bhola.

A chairman candidate for Faridpur Sadar Upazila Parishad died of cardiac arrest as he probably couldn’t bear the hassle of hectic work during the polls.

As scheduled, polling started at 8am and continued up to 4 pm without any break.

A total of 73,517,849 voters reportedly cast their votes in 32,356 polling centers under the 480 upazila areas where 3,316 aspirants are in the race for the post of chairman, 2,879 for vice-chairman, and 1,936 woman vice-chairperson.

Fourteen candidates have been elected uncontested, 9 of them as woman vice-chairpersons.

The first election for the Upazila Parishads was held in 1985 and the second in 1990.

The Election Commission postponed election to Dighinala upazila in the Khagrachhari hill district as it found out that a candidate was forced to withdraw from the election race.

The EC also approved the postponement of election to five upazilas for today’s troubles. The UZs are Belkuchi in Sirajganj, Ramganj in Laxmipur, Brahmanbaria Sadar, Ukhia in Cox’s Bazar and Barura in Comilla.

Eventually, today election was held to 475 of the total 481 upazila parishads where the polls were originally scheduled during the past army-led interim regime.

The government announced general holiday today in the election-upazilas (except the areas under six city corporations and cantonment board and unions under Tejgaon circle) so that all can cast their votes.

Some 5 lakh security personnel, including 38,000 members of the armed forces, have been deployed throughout the country for smooth and peaceful holding of the upazila elections.

Successive governments since the restoration of parliamentary democracy in 1991 have kept upazilas dysfunctional either by dissolving the system or by not forming the bodies through elections, violating the constitutional provision that says the state shall encourage local-government institutions.

Most lawmakers of the ruling parties always stood against the system out of a fear of losing control over local development work.

The immediate-past caretaker government brought some significant reforms in the local-government laws regarding its formation and functions to enesure decentralisation of power.

Introduced in an ordinance in 1982 by the then military ruler in efforts to decentralise power, the first election to upazila parishads was held in 1985 and the second in 1990. Since its introduction, conflict between upazila chairmen and local MPs emerged as a major obstacle to strengthening the new system.

The caretaker government made the new upazila parishad law in June 2008, curtailing MPs' authority to interfere in the parishads' activities and returned the jurisdiction of fixing timeframe for the polls to the EC.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Telegraph's fictitious slide show on neuclear attack

UK's Telegraph has published a fictitious slide show story on neuclear attack.

Preparing the world for something?

Obama faulters in oath taking

Millions have seen it live. Obama faultered in uttering correct words during oath-taking.

The original oath should have been like this:
"I Barrack Hussein Obama do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States and will to the best of my ability..."

Here what Obama said during oath:

"I Barrack Hussein Obama do solemnly swear that I will execute the Office of the President of the Unites States faithfully and will to the best of my ability..."

The full video is here.

Does it matter? Well, look at the differences and make your own choice.

Obama-the other side

People around the world have been fooled often, and this time it will be no exception. Read the other side, from a premier conspiracy site. It is easy to be dismissive, but pause for a while and make your own judgement.

Obama plan for South Asia envoy

Aziz Haniffa in Washington writes in rediff news:

Leading South Asia analysts are divided over the incoming Obama administration's likely decision to appoint a special envoy for South Asia. Critical opinion is split three ways: Some argue that such an envoy should concentrate only on Afghanistan and Pakistan; another section holds that India should be included and that a discussion on Kashmir is inevitable; and a third section of opinion contends that the whole idea is misguided.

Dennis Kux, a senior fellow at the Washington, DC think-tank Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars and author of the seminal Estranged Democracies: India and the United States, believes a special envoy would be a good idea.

"I believe there ought to be somebody in the White House who is looking at South Asia, who has more authority than the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, and who devotes all his time to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the India-Pakistan problem," he said.

While Pakistan and Afghanistan are priority, Kux says, India is important because "one has an effect on the other, so it all ties together. And one cannot deny that in looking at India-Pakistan problems, the Kashmir dispute is the main problem. It does not mean that you have to be there beating up on people or what have you, but just that you have a focal point in the US government; that there is unity of thought and unity of policy."

Kux believes that a special envoy solves the existing problem, "where the State Department is going one way, the Pentagon the other, etc."

Dr Stephen P Cohen, who heads the South Asia programme at the Brookings Institution, another Washington, DC think-tank, says there is a need for a special envoy, whose brief extends to the entire region. "Assistant secretaries of state have become mere country directors and the problems are so great. Anyway, the Obama style is to have special emissaries and that means the Assistant Secretary for South Asia will be managers for just Nepal and Sri Lanka and maybe Bangladesh."

The trick, says Cohen, is to pick the right envoy. "That is 98 percent of the issue. If it is someone who charges in there and bullies people, he might not get very far in any country in the region."

Former career diplomat Richard Holbrooke's name is the one most often cited as the likely envoy. "I don't know if that personality (Holbrooke) is going to match up with the problems of the region," Cohen says, adding that he would prefer someone like former US ambassador to India Thomas Pickering.

Interestingly, Holbrooke has of late been travelling regularly to Afghanistan and being briefed by noted Afghanistan expert Professor Marvin Weinbaum. The Obama team is believed to be "impressed by his views on Afghanistan" and on how to take a "regional approach that includes India."

Cohen is not similarly impressed. "Just because you are an expert in one area doesn't mean you'll be an expert in all areas," the South Asia expert says. Referring to India's voiced objections to the appointment of such an envoy, Cohen says "India should not be averse to a special envoy talking about Kashmir. It's still a problem for India and it involves China too. It's not simply Pakistan. And I think it should be legitimate for other countries to be concerned about this."

He warns, however, that it is counter-productive for the envoy, when named, to twist India's arm in a bid to solve the Kashmir problem. "But if the Indians can find a way out of this and if the outsiders can help, they should welcome it and I think they've been foolish in taking a hard-nosed position on this."

On the subject of Afghanistan, Cohen argues that any administration strategy has to take the wide angle view, and should include neighbours like India, Iran and even China. Acknowledging the paranoia in Pakistan regarding India's role in Afghanistan, Cohen said, "Every time I go to Pakistan, they lecture me about the 25 Indian consulates in Afghanistan. I understand from both Indian and American officials that in fact the Indian presence is not that great, that the Pakistanis are wildly exaggerating it. Maybe that's the Indian purpose ?akes the Pakistanis think they are doing something."

He says it is counterproductive for India and Pakistan to continue their cold war in Afghanistan, where the US has vital interests. The two countries should instead realise their common interest in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, he argues, "because it could otherwise keep spilling into their own countries."

Harlan Kenneth Ullman, senior associate with the Centre of Strategic and International Studies, is also in favour of the idea of a special envoy, whose brief is a regional approach that includes Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Ullman, who has close links with Pakistani government officials, military leaders and intelligence officers, believes the insurgency in Afghanistan "is getting worse and the situation is deteriorating, and this extends obviously to Pakistan because what happens in Afghanistan fuels what is happening in Pakistan, and the insurgency is heading East --there is no doubt it's heading to India."

"The only way you are going to take it on is regional -- you are going to need to involve China, and Russia and Iran and the Gulf and Saudi Arabia and other States."

Ullman recommends as special envoy someone like former general and ex-National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who is very knowledgeable of the region. Taking a swipe at Holbrooke, whose stellar moment was his negotiations on the Bosnia-Serbia crisis, Ullman said, "If you get someone whose experience is entirely in Europe, I don't think that would be the appropriate person. You need somebody who is well known to the region because the issues are too complicated, too inter-related and frankly too difficult for someone to learn on the trot."

Ullman thus recommends Scowcroft, Pickering, or someone on those lines who "has stature and the understanding of the region. You have to give them a mission. One is to promote peace and stability and prosperity. That means there has to be some link back to financial aid from the United States, and it also needs to be closely linked with Central Command, because in this case there has to be a combination of military force as well as the more important issue of civilian aid and help and that has to be the goal."

Former CIA South Asia analyst Lisa Curtis, currently a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and Gary Samore, vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, were, however, opposed to the appointment of a special envoy.

Curtis warned that such an appointment would be "misguided", and that "raising the spectre of international intervention in the Kashmir dispute could fuel unrealistic expectations in Pakistan for a final settlement in its favour." Consequently, she said it would compound the problem in encouraging Pakistan "to increasing its support for Kashmiri militants to push an agenda it believed was within reach."

She said such a brief for the envoy could signal to New Delhi that Washington is "reverting to policies that view India only through the South Asia lens rather than as the rising power that it is." This, she said, could be counterproductive to the Obama administration's efforts to "build on major gains the Bush team made in improving what Vice President-elect Joe Biden himself called one of the most important bilateral relationships for the US in the 21st century."

Samore for his part believes the brief for a special envoy should be limited to Afghanistan and Pakistan and should not include India. He, and all other experts interviewed for this story, are unanimous however that the November 26 terror attacks in Mumbai has made South Asia an immediate priority for the incoming administration.

The Obama administration, Kux said, has its work cut out to lower the temperature between India and Pakistan "so that the Pakistanis continue to focus on the Western and not the Eastern border. One way to do that ?gh it "will take some doing" ?o try and revive the India-Pakistan composite dialogue as soon as possible. "With elections coming up in India, though, and with the (Prime Minister) Manmohan Singh government not wishing to appear namby-pamby, it becomes more difficult."

BANGLADESH Security Guard Turns Into Sculptor Of Religious Statues

From: Union of Catholic Asian News.
RAJSHAHI, Bangladesh (UCAN) -- Dominic Mondol is focusing all his attention on two of the religious sculptures inside a metal hut, working with his painting tools to finish them in time.

The former security guard needs to deliver the statues of Saint Joseph and Mother Mary to a pastoral formation center at neighboring Dinajpur diocese by the end of the month.

Mondol, 51, created numerous religious statues for a decade as a part-time job alongside his work as a security guard for the Mennonite Central Committee offices in Dhaka. His wife, Rina, 45, helped him.

Last year, however, he left that job to dedicate his time to sculpting and became the only professional Catholic sculptor in Bangladesh.

"It has become my passion and profession, and it has changed my life," Mondol said at his village in Rajshahi diocese's Bonpara parish, 200 kilometers northwest of Dhaka.
"I can't imagine a day without doing this work!" he exclaimed.

Before Mondol got interested in sculpting, the Catholic Church in Bangladesh imported religious sculptures from India, the same place he found his inspiration.

In 1996, Mondol traveled to India's West Bengal state to visit his maternal uncle in Nadia. There, for the first time, he saw religious statues being made in his uncle's workshop. Intrigued by the process, Mondol brought his cousin, also a sculptor, back to Bangladesh to help him learn the profession.

For the next two years, Paul Baroi taught him the skills of making religious statues, from sculpting to painting. Mondol then began part-time production of statues of the Lord Jesus, the Blessed Mother, Saint Joseph, Saint Paul, Saint Anthony of Padua and Blessed Theresa.

The country's lone Catholic sculptor now supplies statues for religious sites, communities and individuals. Venues where they can be seen include the Catholic bishops' Christian Communications Center in Dhaka, the shrine of St. Anthony in Nagari, Dhaka, and the Marian shrines in Diang, Chittagong; Baromari, Mymensingh; and Nobai Bot-tola, Rajshahi.

Bishops, priests and nuns from various dioceses and parishes order from him, Mondol said. By his estimate, he is currently delivering religious statues in Dhaka worth about 300,000 taka (US$4,400) a year.

People also ask him to repaint old statues.

Fellow parishioners in Bonpara now call him murtiwala, the sculptor.

"Before entering this profession, I was nothing but a simple man to all, but now people look at me with respect," Mondol said. "My income is going up day by day."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama enters the great game

Sorry for the long post, but it is worth reading, courtesy of Stratfor.
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama will be sworn in on Tuesday as
president of the United States. Candidate Obama said much about
what he would do as president; now we will see what President
Obama actually does. The most important issue Obama will face
will be the economy, something he did not anticipate through most
of his campaign. The first hundred days of his presidency thus
will revolve around getting a stimulus package passed. But Obama
also is now in the great game of global competition and in that
game, presidents rarely get to set the agenda.

The major challenge he faces is not Gaza; the Israeli-Palestinian
dispute is not one any U.S. president intervenes in unless he
wants to experience pain. As we have explained, that is an
intractable conflict to which there is no real solution.
Certainly, Obama will fight being drawn into mediating the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his first hundred days in
office. He undoubtedly will send the obligatory Middle East
envoy, who will spend time with all the parties, make suitable
speeches and extract meaningless concessions from all sides. This
envoy will establish some sort of process to which everyone will
cynically commit, knowing it will go nowhere. Such a mission is
not involvement it is the alternative to involvement, and the
reason presidents appoint Middle East envoys. Obama can avoid the
Gaza crisis, and he will do so.

Obama's Two Unavoidable Crises

The two crises that cannot be avoided are Afghanistan and Russia.
First, the situation in Afghanistan is tenuous for a number of
reasons, and it is not a crisis that Obama can avoid decisions
on. Obama has said publicly that he will decrease his commitments
in Iraq and increase them in Afghanistan. He thus will have more
troops fighting in Afghanistan. The second crisis emerged from a
decision by Russia to cut off natural gas to Ukraine, and the
resulting decline in natural gas deliveries to Europe. This one
obviously does not affect the United States directly, but even
after flows are restored, it affects the Europeans greatly. Obama
therefore comes into office with three interlocking issues:
Afghanistan, Russia and Europe. In one sense, this is a single
issue and it is not one that will wait.

Obama clearly intends to follow Gen. David Petraeus? lead in
Afghanistan. The intention is to increase the number of troops in
Afghanistan, thereby intensifying pressure on the Taliban and
opening the door for negotiations with the militant group or one
of its factions. Ultimately, this would see the inclusion of the
Taliban or Taliban elements in a coalition government. Petraeus
pursued this strategy in Iraq with Sunni insurgents, and it is
the likely strategy in Afghanistan.

But the situation in Afghanistan has been complicated by the
situation in Pakistan. Roughly three-quarters of U.S. and NATO
supplies bound for Afghanistan are delivered to the Pakistani
port of Karachi and trucked over the border to Afghanistan. Most
fuel used by Western forces in Afghanistan is refined in Pakistan
and delivered via the same route. There are two crossing points,
one near Afghanistan's Kandahar province at Chaman, Pakistan, and
the other through the Khyber Pass. The Taliban have attacked
Western supply depots and convoys, and Pakistan itself closed the
routes for several days, citing government operations a gainst
radical Islamist forces.

Meanwhile, the situation in Pakistan has been complicated by
tensions with India. The Indians have said that the individuals
who carried out the Nov. 26 Mumbai attack were Pakistanis
supported by elements in the Pakistani government. After Mumbai,
India made demands of the Pakistanis. While the situation appears
to have calmed, the future of Indo-Pakistani relations remains
far from clear; anything from a change of policy in New Delhi to
new terrorist attacks could see the situation escalate. The
Pakistanis have made it clear that a heightened threat from India
requires them to shift troops away from the Afghan border and
toward the east; a small number of troops already has been

Apart from the direct impact this kind of Pakistani troop
withdrawal would have on cross-border operations by the Taliban,
such a move also would dramatically increase the vulnerability of
NATO supply lines through Pakistan. Some supplies could be
shipped in by aircraft, but the vast bulk of supplies ?
petroleum, ammunition, etc. must come in via surface transit,
either by truck, rail or ship. Western operations in Afghanistan
simply cannot be supplied from the air alone. A cutoff of the
supply lines across Pakistan would thus leave U.S. troops in
Afghanistan in crisis. Because Washington can't predict or
control the future actions of Pakistan, of India or of
terrorists, the United States must find an alternative to the
routes through Pakistan.

When we look at a map, the two routes through Pakistan from
Karachi are clearly the most logical to use. If those were closed
or even meaningfully degraded the only other viable routes
would be through the former Soviet Union.

One route, along which a light load of fuel is currently
transported, crosses the Caspian Sea. Fuel refined in Armenia is
ferried across the Caspian to Turkmenistan (where a small amount
of fuel is also refined), then shipped across Turkmenistan
directly to Afghanistan and through a small spit of land in
Uzbekistan. This route could be expanded to reach either the
Black Sea through Georgia or the Mediterranean through Georgia
and Turkey (though the additional use of Turkey would require a
rail gauge switch). It is also not clear that transports native
to the Caspian have sufficient capacity for this.

Another route sidesteps the issues of both transport across the
Caspian and the sensitivity of Georgia by crossing Russian
territory above the Caspian. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan (and likely
at least a small corner of Turkmenistan) would connect the route
to Afghanistan. There are options of connecting to the Black Sea
or transiting to Europe through either Ukraine or Belarus.
Iran could provide a potential alternative, but relations between
Tehran and Washington would have to improve dramatically before
such discussions could even begin and time is short.

Many of the details still need to be worked out. But they are
largely variations on the two main themes of either crossing the
Caspian or transiting Russian territory above it.

Though the first route is already partially established for fuel,
it is not clear how much additional capacity exists. To
complicate matters further, Turkmen acquiescence is unlikely
without Russian authorization, and Armenia remains strongly loyal
to Moscow as well. While the current Georgian government might
leap at the chance, the issue is obviously an extremely sensitive
one for Moscow. (And with Russian forces positioned in Azerbaijan
and the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,
Moscow has troops looming over both sides of the vulnerable route
across Georgia.) The second option would require crossing Russian
territory itself, with a number of options ? from connecting to
the Black Sea to transiting either Ukraine or Belarus to Europe,
or connecting to the Baltic states.

Both routes involve countries of importance to Russia where
Moscow has influence, regardless of whether those countries are
friendly to it. This would give Russia ample opportunity to
scuttle any such supply line at multiple points for reasons
wholly unrelated to Afghanistan.

If the West were to opt for the first route, the Russians almost
certainly would pressure Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan not to
cooperate, and Turkey would find itself in a position it doesn't
want to be in namely, caught between the United States and
Russia. The diplomatic complexities of developing these routes
not only involve the individual countries included, they also
inevitably lead to the question of U.S.-Russian relations.

Even without crossing Russia, both of these two main options
require Russian cooperation. The United States must develop the
option of an alternative supply route to Pakistan, and in doing
so, it must define its relationship with Russia. Seeking to work
without Russian approval of a route crossing its ?near abroad?
will represent a challenge to Russia. But getting Russian
approval will require a U.S. accommodation with the country.
The Russian Natural Gas Connection

One of Obama's core arguments against the Bush administration was
that it acted unilaterally rather than with allies. Specifically,
Obama meant that the Bush administration alienated the Europeans,
therefore failing to build a sustainable coalition for the war.
By this logic, it follows that one of Obama's first steps should
be to reach out to Europe to help influence or pressure the
Russians, given that NATO has troops in Afghanistan and Obama has
said he intends to ask the Europeans for more help there.

The problem with this is that the Europeans are passing through a
serious crisis with Russia, and that Germany in particular is
involved in trying to manage that crisis. This problem relates to
natural gas. Ukraine is dependent on Russia for about two-thirds
of the natural gas it uses. The Russians traditionally have
provided natural gas at a deep discount to former Soviet
republics, primarily those countries Russia sees as allies, such
as Belarus or Armenia. Ukraine had received discounted natural
gas, too, until the 2004 Orange Revolution, when a pro-Western
government came to power in Kiev. At that point, the Russians
began demanding full payment. Given the subsequent rises in
global energy prices, that left Ukraine in a terrible situation
which of course is exactly where Moscow wanted it.

The Russians cut off natural gas to Ukraine for a short period in
January 2006, and for three weeks in 2009. Apart from leaving
Ukraine desperate, the cutoff immediately affected the rest of
Europe, because the natural gas that goes to Europe flows through
Ukraine. This put the rest of Europe in a dangerous position,
particularly in the face of bitterly cold weather in 2008-2009.

The Russians achieved several goals with this. First, they
pressured Ukraine directly. Second, they forced many European
states to deal with Moscow directly rather than through the
European Union. Third, they created a situation in which European
countries had to choose between supporting Ukraine and heating
their own homes. And last, they drew Berlin in particular since
Germany is the most dependent of the major European states on
Russian natural gas into the position of working with the
Russians to get Ukraine to agree to their terms. (Russian Prime
Minister Vladimir Putin visited Germany last week to discuss this
directly with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.)

The Germans already have made clear their opposition to expanding
NATO to Ukraine and Georgia. Given their dependency on the
Russians, the Germans are not going to be supporting the United
States if Washington decides to challenge Russia over the supply
route issue. In fact, the Germans and many of the Europeans
are in no position to challenge Russia on anything, least of all
on Afghanistan. Overall, the Europeans see themselves as having
limited interests in the Afghan war, and many already are
planning to reduce or withdraw troops for budgetary reasons.

It is therefore very difficult to see Obama recruiting the
Europeans in any useful manner for a confrontation with Russia
over access for American supplies to Afghanistan. Yet this is an
issue he will have to address immediately.

The Price of Russian Cooperation

The Russians are prepared to help the Americans, however and it
is clear what they will want in return.

At minimum, Moscow will want a declaration that Washington will
not press for the expansion of NATO to Georgia or Ukraine, or for
the deployment of military forces in non-NATO states on the
Russian periphery specifically, Ukraine and Georgia. At this
point, such a declaration would be symbolic, since Germany and
other European countries would block expansion anyway.

The Russians might also demand some sort of guarantee that NATO
and the United States not place any large military formations or
build any major military facilities in the former Soviet
republics (now NATO member states) of Estonia, Latvia and
Lithuania. (A small rotating squadron of NATO fighters already
patrols the skies over the Baltic states.) Given that there were
intense anti-government riots in Latvia and Lithuania last week,
the stability of these countries is in question. The Russians
would certainly want to topple the pro-Western Baltic
governments. And anything approaching a formal agreement between
Russia and the United States on the matter could quickly
destabilize the Baltics, in addition to very much weakening the
NATO alliance.

Another demand the Russians probably will make because they
have in the past is that the United States guarantee eventual
withdrawal from any bases in Central Asia in return for Russian
support for using those bases for the current Afghan campaign.
(At present, the United States runs air logistics operations out
of Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan.) The Russians do not want to see
Central Asia become a U.S. sphere of influence as the result of
an American military presence.

Other demands might relate to the proposed U.S. ballistic missile
defense installations in the Czech Republic and Poland.

We expect the Russians to make variations on all these demands in
exchange for cooperation in creating a supply line to
Afghanistan. Simply put, the Russians will demand that the United
States acknowledge a Russian sphere of influence in the former
Soviet Union. The Americans will not want to concede this or at
least will want to make it implicit rather than explicit. But the
Russians will want this explicit, because an explicit guarantee
will create a crisis of confidence over U.S. guarantees in the
countries that emerged from the Soviet Union, serving as a lever
to draw these countries into the Russian orbit. U.S. acquiescence
on the point potentially would have ripple effects in the rest of
Europe, too.

Therefore, regardless of the global financial crisis, Obama has
an immediate problem on his hands in Afghanistan. He has troops
fighting there, and they must be supplied. The Pakistani supply
line is no longer a sure thing. The only other options either
directly challenge Russia (and ineffectively at that) or require
Russian help. Russia's price will be high, particularly because
Washington?s European allies will not back a challenge to Russia
in Georgia, and all options require Russian cooperation anyway.
Obama's plan to recruit the Europeans on behalf of American
initiatives won't work in this case. Obama does not want to start
his administration with making a massive concession to Russia,
but he cannot afford to leave U.S. forces in Afghanistan without
supplies. He can hope that nothing happens in Pakistan, but that
is up to the Taliban and other Islamist groups more than anyone
else and betting on their goodwill is not a good idea.

Whatever Obama is planning to do, he will have to deal with this
problem fast, before Afghanistan becomes a crisis. And there are
no good solutions. But unlike with the Israelis and Palestinians,
Obama can?t solve this by sending a special envoy who appears to
be doing something. He will have to make a very tough decision.
Between the economy and this crisis, we will find out what kind
of president Obama is.

And we will find out very soon.

Monday, January 19, 2009

New hope for Bangladesh

Rupa Huq writes in Tribune:

WHEN choosing the highlights of 2008, most people I know were unanimous: Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain, with all its associated symbolism, was their favourite pick. The American election galvanised many on this side of the Atlantic as well as in the United States. As a fellow Tribune contributor I met at a public meeting in London on the eve of Obama’s triumph put it: “Of course I’ll be watching. I want to know who’s going to be running our country.”

However, I want to turn to another election in a different part of the globe which may not have received the same wall-to wall media coverage, but still offers hope in its outcome. An elderly, bespectacled sari-clad figure, Sheikh Hasina Wajid may not have the same powerful imagery attached to her as the youthful and iconic Obama, but her dramatic success in Bangladesh’s first elections for seven years may turn out to be just as significant. For a start, an election held in peaceful conditions with no real contestation of the final outcome surprised many. The record turnout has parallels with the scenes witnessed last November of people voting in droves for the man who is now President-elect of the United States.

The politics of Bangladesh have been dominated by dynasties for aeons. While commentators have continually made the claim that the ideological difference between the defeated BNP (that’s the Bangladesh National Party) and the Awami League were fairly negligible and based more on the personalities of the two leaders, the now vanquished Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajid, clear dividing lines did emerge throughout the election campaign. The BNP, always the more right-wing of the two parties, ran in coalition with the religious grouping Jamat Islamia – despite the founding principle of Bangladesh as a secular state. It is interesting that the two leaders are both female in a culture where people invariably assume women are downtrodden specimens chained to the stove. In fact, women in south Asia have been heads of state in India and Sri Lanka, as well as in Pakistan and Bangladesh (twice).

When I went to hear Sheikh Hasina Wajid address a packed lecture theatre at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies in May 2007 as part of a lecture series entitled “Democracy and human rights”, she and her BNP counterpart were both in exile. Sheikh Hasina dramatically told her audience: “It’s only by the grace of Allah that I am here.” We were then treated to the frightening details of 19 previous assassination attempts, including a hand grenade incident where party workers had been killed forming a human shield around their leader. All this has taken on a new relevance in the light of the shocking circumstances surrounding the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. And one of the curious by-products of the US election aftermath was the moment when bookmaker Paddy Power declared it would no longer be taking bets on how long it would be for Obama to be assassinated.

Bangladesh is a young democracy that is located precariously in terms of its human rights record, electoral history and ability to meet the challenge of climate change. All have been patchy at best. In March last year, I was in Bangladesh as a member of a Foreign Office delegation which was part of the “Engaging with the Islamic World” strand of the FO’s work. The team took in a range of visits to university campuses, broadcasting studios, a rural school in Sylhet backed by the British Council and a voter registration centre on the outskirts of Dhaka. The queues of colourfully-attired women and children waiting patiently in line to be enfranchised were a memorable sight. At the time, it was not known when the election might be or what it might bring. International observers will now attest that the elections of 2008, which were originally due have taken place early 2007, went off remarkably peacefully. The BNP is not seriously disputing the results or, at the time of writing, rioting in the streets – which was feared.

As someone on the outside, I am not really qualified to enter too deeply into the political science of it all. But I can report my observations of how I see Bangladesh shaping up for the future. At that School of Oriental and African Studies meeting the comment: “I’m not pro-Awami League or BNP, I’m just pro-Bangladesh”, got the biggest cheer of the night. It is a common cliché to claim that election results change nothing. Naysayers are already repeating the line in the US. However, after both the US elections which dominated the world’s media and those in Bangladesh, which barely registered in Britain, the prospects look good. Obama has to be better than George W Bush. In Bangladesh, after years of uncertainty and near-paralysis with rule by a caretaker government, things also appear to be on the up. Military rule – something that has often been associated with Bangladeshi politics – is coming to an end. Let’s hope that corruption, which has also sadly been associated with Bangladesh all too often, can be consigned to the past as well. After all, it is a new year and so ambitious resolutions should be the order of the day.

A plateful of democracy called Bangladesh

Syed Neaz Ahmad, editor of MWL English Journal and adjunct faculty at Umm Al-Qura University, Makkah, Saudi Arabia, has written this piece in Saudi Gazzette today.

BANGLADESH as a small country has a lot to be proud of. The young nation has worked relentlessly to establish sound traditions of democratic values. There is in place a smooth system of transition of powers, regular democratic elections and a multi party culture that is often quoted as an example of healthy democratic framework.

Bangladeshis working abroad have made a name for themselves. Believing that no job is too small they have picked up the thread – where other expatriate communities left – and have helped make Bangladesh treasury overflow with foreign exchange reserves.
As a result of this hard work – it is no wonder – that today after Arabic, Bengali is the most widely spoken language in the Middle East. Recently-elected prime minister, Awami League (AL) chairperson Sheikh Hasina will find a lot on the credit side, but to balance the ledger of good deeds, she needs to plan ahead to sort out the inherited disorder.

Her new scheme of things must please the eyes as well as generate confidence at home and abroad. To begin with a strict code of conduct for public servants and leaders must be introduced to avoid being included in the ‘Most Corrupt Nations’ league.
This is one area of ‘contact sports’ where relegation will bring good name to the country. So far the new prime minister has done well. She has shown vision and political astuteness not seen in Bangladeshi politics. It reflects in her appointment of ministers and advisors. While not disappointing the old guards in the December parliamentary elections, she has steered clear of the old boys – particularly those with a reputation of one or the other kind.

Party sources say most of the incumbent members of the presidium, the highest-policy making forum of the party, and some other central leaders might be dropped from the new central committee, as Chairperson Sheikh Hasina wants to bring forward young leaders to prepare the party for the next decades.

Appointing a former civil servant as her finance minister, a lady-doctor-turned-lawyer-turned politician as foreign minister, another lady-lawyer as her interior minister and naming the old-guard Zillur Rahman as the next President of the country - are indications of things to come.

However, with local government elections scheduled to be held next week in 481 sub-districts both the AL and the BNP politicians are out and about flexing their muscles in the rural areas.

Sheikh Hasina’s directives to grassroots leaders of the party to pick a single candidate for the post of chairman in the upcoming election to upazila councils appears to have fallen flat with rival contestants from the party still in the polls race in many upazilas.

In the first week of this month, AL President Sheikh Hasina sent directives to the president and general secretary of the party’s district units to put up only one contestant for the chairman’s post to ensure the party’s victory in the local government polls slated for January 22, sources in the party said.
Supporters of many candidates, who were not picked by grassroots-level party committees, are clashing with the supporters of party-backed candidates in many areas, let alone extending support to them.

Beyond the party the law and order situation in the districts appear satisfactory, but clashes between students groups and supporters of some ‘Islamic scholars’ is something of a matter of concern. On Friday at the Baitul Mukarram national mosque in Dhaka supporters of the new and the old Imam clashed with each other.

Shameful as it was, there are reports of ‘flying shoes’, scuffles, shouting and slogans in favor and against the two ‘scholars’ inside the mosque. Newspapers also reported that one group organized their own Friday congregation outside the precinct of Baitul Mukarram. Last week Awami League’s student wing Bangladesh Chhatra League, and Jamaat-i- Islami’s student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir clashed at Mirpur Homeopathic Medical College. The hour-long clash in the Dhaka suburb left at least 10 people injured, some seriously. There are reports of trouble at Rajshahi University too.

Perhaps in an effort to control the outbreak of violence at campuses and set the change in motion the new administration has appointed a new Vice Chancellor (VC) of Dhaka University.

The University has been for long a hotbed of politics. The new VC says he would like to work together to ensure a congenial atmosphere on the campus through a concerted effort.

“The main task of the university is to impart education properly,” he said, adding: “The University administration should act to ensure smooth holding of classes and exams.” This is one thing that doesn’t seem to go down well with the students but with a firm hand AL must try to shun students getting involved in politics.

Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country and despite what some politicians’ claim it will remain a Muslim country. Dhaka, even in the Days of Raj was known as the City of Mosques.

The new administration in Dhaka needs to distance itself from its so-called ‘secular’ image. This way it can contain and curb religious militancy in the country, achieve harmony and involve the innocent poor masses – be they Muslims or non-Muslims – in nation-building activities.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

49 Million Hindus Forced to Leave Bangladesh since 1946 : US Professor

Dr. Sachi (Sabyasachi) Ghosh Dastidar is a Distinguished Service Professor of the State University of New York at Old Westbury. His book titled Empire's Last Casualty: Indian Subcontinent's Vanishing Hindu and Other Minorities (2008) is a study of effects of religious communalism on a pluralistic, tolerant, multi-religious society. It focuses on the loss of indigenous Hindu population from the land of their ancestors; and on changes brought about since a multi-religious progressive region of Colonial British India was partitioned in 1947, and its effects on Hindu and non-Muslim (Buddhist and Christian) minorities, on pluralism and on indigenous cultures.

After Britain's Muslim-Hindu partition of Bengal Province east Bengal became Muslim-majority East Pakistan, a part of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, unleashing regular, merciless anti-Hindu pogroms by intolerant Islamists. West Bengal remained in India, with Muslim minority and ever-growing massive Bengali Hindu refugee who turned towards left extremism. Following a 1971 war of independence against West Pakistan,

Bangladesh gained independence, creating the second largest Muslim-majority nation. That war was concurrently anti-Hindu and anti-Bengali genocide by Islamic Republic's army and its Bengali and Urdu speaking Islamist allies. The book documents the decade-wise "missing" Hindus from Bangladesh Census: over 49 million; larger than 163 of 189 nations listed in World Bank's April 2003 World Development indicators database, and between 3.1 million (larger than 75 of 189 nations) and 1.4 million Hindus lost their lives through the process of Islamization. Documenting three million-plus lost lives have been painful and difficult; especially when Hindus cremate their dead.

Additionally rivers of the world's largest delta washed away signs of mass murder leaving no clue. All attempts have been made to justify the data presented in the book, hardly-known to the world and rarely discussed in Bengal itself. Read more here.