Friday, November 27, 2009

Bangladeshi Shakespeare may be running out of material!


If a Shakespeare should ever arise in Bangladesh, he would have plenty of tragedies around which to weave his history plays. The country is only 38 years old, but the vendettas between the leading families, the murders and plots and coups, have been just as tangled and bloody as the ones in 14th and 15th-century England that gave the great playwright so much of his material. But that kind of history may be coming to an end in Bangladesh.

It’s not quite dead yet. Last February, at least 4,000 soldiers serving in the Bangladesh Rifles, a border defence regiment, mutinied and began killing their officers. Fifty-seven officers and 17 other people were murdered by the mutineers, who dumped their bodies in sewers and an incinerator. The violence spread to military camps all over Bangladesh.

The mutineers said that they were revolting against poor pay, but many people suspected that there was a political motive behind it all. If there was, it failed. The rest of the army remained loyal, tanks surrounded the regiment’s various camps, and the government promised to look into the rebels’ complaints if they surrendered.

That was a lie, of course: they were all arrested. The first nine soldiers went on trial for mutiny before a military court on Nov. 24 and more than 3,500 others will follow in various military cantonments around the country, while several hundred others will be tried before civilian courts for murder, rape and looting.

This is not the kind of blood-spattered Shakespearean ending that Bangladeshis have become much too familiar with. The trials may even answer the question of whether there was a political motive behind the military uprising. But suppose there was. What could it have been?

There has been a second high-profile court case in Bangladesh in the past month. On Nov. 19 the Supreme Court confirmed the death sentences for 12 former military officers who took part in the assassination of Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1975. The five ex-officers who are actually in custody, and whose final appeal was rejected, now face imminent execution for their crime of 34 years ago.

Few countries had a bloodier birth than Bangladesh. For a decade and a half after the partition of India in 1947, it was just the eastern wing of Pakistan, a country in two parts with a lot of Indian territory between them. But the two parts never got along, and when what is now Bangladesh tried to leave Pakistan in 1971 it got very ugly.

The Pakistan army killed up to three million people in rebel “East Pakistan” before Indian military intervention forced it to withdraw. East Pakistan then became the independent country of Bangladesh, and the country’s nationalist political leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (who had spent the war in jail in West Pakistan) came home to lead it.

Mujib was an autocratic man: by 1975 he had closed down all the opposition papers and declared himself president for life. But he did not deserve what happened to him and his family.

In the early hours of Aug. 15, 1975, a group of young officers stormed Mujib’s house and killed everybody in it, including his wife, his three sons (one was only nine years old) and his servants. Twenty people in all. Only his two daughters, who were abroad at the time, survived. One of them, Sheikh Hasina, is now the prime minister. (I told you it was Shakespearean.)

The young officers who murdered Mujib were overthrown by a different group within months, and another coup removed that bunch before the end of the year. Eventually power ended up in the hands of General Ziaur Rahman, who was also murdered by fellow officers in 1981. His widow, Khaleda Zia, has been prime minister three times, and still leads the main opposition party.

General Zia was not involved in the murder of Mujib, but he did end up allied to the people who had killed him: officers who detested Mujib’s secularism, and in some cases had helped the Pakistani army slaughter their own people during the independence war. They killed Zia too, in the end, but that does not stop Zia’s widow and Mujib’s daughter from hating each other.

That personal vendetta has virtually paralyzed the politics of a country with half the population of the United States. Ever since democracy was restored in Bangladesh in 1990, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have alternated in power, each devoting all her time in opposition to sabotaging the other’s initiatives. But now the page may have turned.

The Supreme Court’s confirmation of the death sentences on the aging conspirators of 1975 may finally enable the country to move past its obsession with those horrific murders. If there was a political motive behind the Bangladesh Rifles mutiny, it was to stop that verdict from being passed, but the insubordination did not spread.

Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League won the last election by a landslide, and the army stayed loyal to the elected government right through the mutiny. The Bangladeshi Shakespeare may be running out of material.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Design to dismantling Bangladesh's para- commando unit?

Nation's defence should be strengthened by M. Shahidul Islam

Governance is all about making the best of choices, some of which could be horrid and unpalatable. And any decision made not guided by facts and circumstances may haunt the decision makers in coming days. As the governance is becoming more clogged and stymied by the day, many feel that some of those who are helping the government to make decisions are actually saboteurs from within. Because of the delay in holding the trial of the BDR massacre of February 25-26, which has again been deferred last week, the armed forces of the nation are apparently being deprived of fundamental rights accorded to them by the nation's Constitution and the other relevant statutes that are designed to treat all citizens as equal.

Meanwhile, according to information revealed by a number of reliable sources, the recent arrest of a serving major from the BDR headquarters, Major Helal, and four captains of army's elite special force-Captain Rajib, Captain Reja, Captain Fuad and Captain Rouf-was an attempt to create a new crisis in the wake of the Mujib killing trial's verdict. On Nov. 18, yet another serving Captain from the RAB was implicated in an unrelated accusation and a warrant was served against him by the court, bypassing military legal procedures.

'Framed operation'
In the course of a week-long investigation into the reasons for which the serving military officers were apprehended, this scribe has gathered valuable information from sources close to the investigation bodies as well to the court of inquiry that the army has constituted under Brig. Gen. Imamul Huda to further dig into the alleged involvement of these officers in the attack on MP Fazle Nur Taposh on October 21. "This is a framed operation with serious political motive," claimed one of the army investigators about the alleged involvement of the arrested officers. Insisting on anonymity, the officer said, "We have learnt for sure that the arrest occurred after three particular politicians influenced the Detective Branch (DB) and the Home Minister to arrest those officers and charge them of being involved in the attack on MP Taposh." The officer added, "DB then obtained through the Home Minister a nod from higher authority and arrangements were made to apprehend those officers while they were on duty."

ISPR's rebuttal
The Holiday also had leant from a source close to the Brig. Gen.-Imamul Huda - led court of inquiry team that the arrested officers had nothing to with the attack on MP Taposh and a series of media exposures, reportedly leaked by DB sources, saying that they were physically present near the spot of the occurrence, is a 'big lie.' Sickened by these concocted media exposures, the military's public relations outlet, the ISPR, felt compelled to issue a second press release on the matter last week, rebutting the report of a vernacular Daily that had painted, quoting DB sources, a dramatic portrayal of how those arrested army officers conducted the alleged attack against MP Taposh on October 21.

Through those press releases, the army in fact told the nation that the allegations were false. Incidentally, the arrest of the serving military officers occurred weeks after the arrest of dozens of suspects hailing from the extended families of the Mujib killing case accused leads one to ask, why those civilians, including a four-month old baby, were arrested if one must believe that the attack on Taposh was organized by the arrested army officers? Or, is there a link between the two groups? Finally, how could so many commando officers, who are experts in explosive-related crafts, failed to detonate a simple improvised device? Needs explanation.

However, the PM as the defence minister needs to tell the young officers of the armed forces as to why so many officers from the elite para- commando unit were specifically scooped out and why now? It is also said that the para-commando unit being the military's 'centre of gravity' in so far as the army's biting agility against its enemy, and therefore those inimical to the existence of a credible Bangladesh Army may want it dismantled by any means.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Beware of Bangladesh media!

Don't be carried away with Bangladesh media's emotional coverage of today's verdict on Bangabondhu. They have a habit of changing sides overnight. Pleased to share with you some analyis from a book (Military-media relations in Bangladesh: 1975-1990) which shows how leading Bangla dailies covered the news of coups August and November during 1975.
From the book:

Only four newspapers were in circulation when the first military coup took place on 15 August 1975. The coup happened in the early hours of 15 August and the newspapers could not report the news of the coup on that day.

The August coup: We will now examine the coverage of August coup in the daily lttefaq, which has enjoyed the status of being the largest circulated vernacular daily for a long time. A commentator summed up its political influence with these words. "There are four most powerful organisations in Bangladesh: lttefaq, the military, the bureaucracy and the Awarni League" (Jai Jai Din, 2-8 April 1985).

Ittefaq's banner headline on 16 August stated that Mushtaq Ahmed was the country's new president following a military coup. There was no mention of the killing of President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the headline. The second paragraph of the lead story briefly mentioned that Mujib had been killed in his residence during the process of take-over.

A report on the people's reaction to the change was also published in the same issue. The headline said that people felt relieved after the coup. The editorial comment put the blame on the past government: "...the former ruling clique made the intervention of the military inevitable by blocking all means of transfer of power by constitutional means."

After the August coup, the military did not take power and the civilian government of the Awami League continued to rule the country under its new leader. The new government soon embarked upon a Mujib-bashing programme and news of foreign press comments on the coup began to land in the newsrooms through the official news agency, Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS).

The country's newspapers had little choice but to print the official version of comments of the foreign press. Comments which particularly served the official policy were transmitted. lttefaq, which was a strong critic of Mujib's policy when he was alive, found this Mujib-bashing policy suitable for its readership and continued to follow it for six weeks.

Four reports on foreign press comments on the August coup were published in September. Reports of Newsweek (on 2 September), The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Sunday Times and Glasgow Herald (on 3 September) and comments of Japanese press featured prominently in Ittefaq. Other foreign press reports reproduced in Ittefaq's various editions included those of the Far Eastern EconQmic Review (on 17 September) and Illustrated Weekly of India (on 18 September).

At the same time Ittefaq also pursued its own policy of negating Mujib's image by giving prominence to the official report of the White Paper on the previous government which squarely blamed it for its mishandling of the economy. 30 October's front-page coverage of the recovery of arms and ammunition by police from Mujib's residence points to the policy being pursued by the paper.

Ittefaq also gave uncompromising support to the Bangladesh military. Its editorial on 10 September hailed the armed forces as the "saviour of the nation", adding: "It is really pathetic to demonstrate negligence or step-motherly attitude to those [the army] who are an integral and inseparable part of the country." In a signed commentary on 20 October, one of the owners of Ittefaq termed the martial law of August as "martial law with a difference, because it did not dissolve parliament, nor suspended constitution." Brief life sketches of four generals who were appointed as deputy martial law administrators also received good pictorial coverage.

Prior to the August coup, the daily Sangbad had been a sympathiser of the Mujib government and a supporter of the Bangladesh Communist Party. The August coup dealt a severe blow to the working journalists of the paper who felt that the first military coup would force the country to tilt towards the West.

The coup also paved lhe way for the return of Sangbad to its owner by the new government, which seized the opportunity to warn the paper about its future attitude. The Mujib-bashing policy was also reflected in the coverage of foreign press reports in Sangbad.

Troubled November: The events in the first week of November 1975 remain a mystery, as Bangladeshi newspapers at that time were unable to report what was really happening as a result of power struggle within the army. On 3 November Brigadier Khaled Mossarraf successfully elbowed out President Mushtaq Ahmed and became new Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA). Chief of Army Staff General Zia was removed from the post and Justice Abu Sadat Mohammed Sayem was appointed as the new President.

All these dramatic events, except the official announcement of the new appointments, were simply missing from the newspapers' reporting.

The news of the killing of four prominent political leaders in jail on 3 November 1995 took two days to appear in Ittefaq. Its readers were only informed that the President had ordered a judicial inquiry into the event. A presidential statement issued late at night said: " It is necessary to remind the members of the public that the army was not in way involved in this criminal act."

The jail killing clearly upset the supporters of Mujib, who came out in the streets carrying the picture of the slain leader. Ittefaq's coverage of this protest’ on 5 November damaged the credibility of new CMLA who had already been portrayed as pro-Indian by rival political forces. Lifshultz (1979) contends that it was Ittefaq's picture which shattered the prospects of the second military coup of 3 November. It is difficult to ascertain now the real motives behind publishing this picture. However, the analysis shows that Ittefaq strongly condemned the jail killing event in its editorial on 6 November. The black-bordered editorial said: "This killing will also alert those who are opposed to political views held by the victims."

No newspapers were brought out on 7 November when the uprising by the general soldiers against the army officers began. The following day, the newspapers gave extensive coverage of the previous day's event. Ittefaq published big pictures of President Sayem and General Zia. It also published a report on the people's jubilation about the "sepoy mutiny". Its editorial blamed adventurist and reactionary forces for attempting to negate the people's victory. A picture of people mixing with soldiers on top of a tank received wide coverage.

Ittefaq's open support for the armed forces was evident from the publication of three editorials within five days of the soldiers upsurge. Its editorial on 11 November urged the members of the armed forces to remain vigilant against evil forces who were trying to mislead and rob them of their victory.

On the other hand, Sangbad tried to show some kind of loyalty to its supporters by giving extensive coverage to strike news on 6 November. News of demands made by student leaders for restoring full status to Mujib as Bangabandhu (friend of Bengal) also featured prominently in the daily. Sangbad was decidedly shocked at the news of the jail killing and it condemned it in the strongest possible terms: "...there is no doubt that killers and butchers of these leaders are enemies of Bangladesh."

Following the soldiers' uprising, Sangbad also published front-page pictures of the three chiefs of services of the armed services on 8 November. A three-column picture of people celebrating-the victory also featured in the same issue. In its editorial it praised the role of General Zia during the troubled time of 3 to 7 November.

On 28 November Sangbad placed a saying of Prophet Mohammed in a reverse box­ item in the front page. The saying was: "Those who create divisions among friends, give pain to religious-minded people and abuse people, they are surely the wretched among Allah's creation." Another saying of the Prophet was also printed on the following day: "Show honour to honourable people and those who create division will not enter heaven and those creating division will be placed in a separate hell."

Mujib killers to die

A government attorney says the Supreme Court has rejected final appeals by five former soldiers sentenced to death in the 1975 killing of the country's independence leader in a military coup, says AP.

Attorney Anisul Haq says a five-member jury dismissed the men's plea to commute the penalty in a packed courtroom in capital Dhaka.

In 1998, a Dhaka court sentenced the men to death for the killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The five petitioned the Supreme Court to commute their sentences.

Seven others who were also convicted are fugitives abroad.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bangladesh improves corruption ranking

The Berlin-based international anti-corruption organization, Transparency International (TI) has today released its annual Corruption Perception Index (CPI) for 2009. The index provides international ranking of countries in terms of perceived degree of prevalence of political and administrative corruption.

The results show that Bangladesh, having scored 2.4 compared to 2.1 in 2008 in a scale of 0-10, is among nine countries that have improved most. However, with the score remaining below the threshold of 3 the country, continues to be in the league of those where corruption continued to be pervasive. Bangladesh has been ranked 13th from below, which is 139th among 180 countries included in the index this year. In 2008 Bangladesh was 10th from below and 147th among 180. In the same position with the same score with Bangladesh this year are Belarus, Pakistan and Philippines. In 2008 Pakistan and Philippines had scored 2.5 and 2.3 respectively, while Belarus 2.0.

It may be recalled that Bangladesh was earlier placed at the very bottom of the list for the fifth successive year from 2001-2005. In 2006 Bangladesh was ranked in no 3, in 2007 in no 7 and in 2008 no 10.