Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Bangladesh's political reality


First: Bangladesh’s strategic location over the past 40 years or so has attracted keen interest from Britain, America and more recently China. These powers compete with each other— China to a much lesser degree— to influence Bangladeshi politics. It is true that India exercises the greatest influence over Bangladesh, but it is not included in the same rank as aforementioned powers. This is because India’s control over Bangladeshi affairs is largely shaped by Britain and America, and executed by their political servants in the Indian government. For instance it is quite evident that during the rule of the Congress Party a favorable British policy is pursued towards Bangladesh. However, the exact opposite is true when BJP is in power, which actively seeks to safeguard American interests in Bangladesh.

The crafting of such colonialist plans and their subsequent execution through political intrigues are influenced by four strategic factors related to Bangladesh’s location, geography and mineral deposits. These are:-

1. India strategic weakness is Bangladesh, as it is laterally located in India’s belly and separates India from seven of its North Eastern states known as the ‘Seven Sisters’. These states Assam, Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh are effectively landlocked by Bangladesh. Assam is the gateway through which the sister states are connected to the mainland. But Assam’s only link between motherland India is a 13mile wide conduit known as Shiliguri Corridor or the chicken’s neck.

The latter term reflects the extreme vulnerability of India, which can be easily exploited by Bangladesh to dismember mainland India from the seven sisters. In fact the only effective means of transporting goods between mainland India and her North Eastern states is Shiliguri Corridor. And for some of the remotest North Eastern states such as Tripura the supplies have to traverse a distance of circa 2000km from mainland India. Furthermore, in the absence of a trade agreement between India and Bangladesh, that permits India’s North Eastern states to use Bangladesh’s Chittagong Port – located hardly 40 miles from Tripura— exporting goods from the seven sisters is cumbersome, expensive and inefficient.

The apparent neglect of the region by successive governments in New Delhi has fueled resentment against India and spawned several secessionist movements backed by foreign powers. The main insurgent groups in the northeast include two factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in Nagaland; Meitei extremists in Manipur; and the all Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) and the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) in Tripura. Another factor that complicates India ’s relationship with its North Eastern states in China ’s proximity to the seven sisters . China abuts Arunachal Pradesh and is known to support several rebel movements in the region. In 1962, China occupied almost half of Arunachal Pradesh with relatively ease.

All of this implies that the longevity of the Seven Sisters as part of India is greatly dependent upon India’s ability to provide basic services and security to the people. To mitigate risk of war with China and quell insurgencies, India maintains about 400,000 troops in the area and has established its largest air base near Shiliguri Corridor.

2. Bangladesh is considered the gateway to Bay of Bengal with its 45000 sq. miles of sea territory in which lies valuable marine resources such as hydrocarbon, fisheries etc. Its well developed sea ports offer both economic and military opportunities for India, UK, US and China. India can use the port facilities to increase trade with its land locked North East region. Whilst the US views the control of Bangladesh’s ports as means of extending its Naval power in the Bay of Bengal and curbing China’s ambitions to expand its navy eastwards. Establishing permanent US military bases in the area will facilitate the rapid deployment of US soldiers to the Chinese borders should the need arise.

Moreover, there are certain areas along the Bangladeshi coastal line that offer protection to radar instruments thereby making it difficult to detect US submarines. Meanwhile China’s interest in the sea ports is to use the facilities to safeguard oil shipment and trade routes in the Indian Ocean. Chinese navy is making rapid progress in developing relations with Myanmar and Bangladesh to gain access to their ports and use them to help china sustain a considerable naval presence in the area. Britain on the other hand is content in pushing the Indian navy under US auspices to counter China’s naval expansion and protect the sea routes for her goods to the far eastern markets.

3. India’s rapid industrialization has made the country the sixth largest energy consumer in the world. India is forced to import oil to meet 70% of her domestic demand at a cost of 40% of her total export earnings. To wean herself off Middle Eastern oil, India has tried to diversify and look at Iran and Venezuela as alternative suppliers of hydrocarbons. But political pressure by Washington has forced New Delhi to almost abandon plans to import gas from Iran and look towards Bangladesh and Myanmar as potential suppliers of energy. Hence Bangladesh’s gas reserve has added another dimension to relations between New Delhi and Dakka.

4. The colonialist view Bangladesh as a means of consolidating globalization in South Asia and South East Asia by connecting remote areas and countries such as the seven sisters, Nepal, Bhutan and Burma together—effectively connecting SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) and ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) countries—to facilitate trade, and economic liberalization of the region’s economies. Once linked by Asian Highway and Trans-Asian Railway, the South and South East Asian nations will be able to use Bangladesh as the main transit point to increase economic trade and boost profits for western multinationals.

Second: Ever since the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan, India has done its utmost to keep Bangladesh in its orbit of influence. The role between the two countries was initially led by the English through Indira Ghandi of the Congress Party in India, and through Shaikh Mujib ur-Rahman of the Awami League in Bangladesh. The English used a variety of means and tactics to weaken Bangladesh and prevent America from consolidating its presence in the country. Furthermore, the measures adopted by the English were design to keep Bangladesh perpetually dependent on India. These measures can be described as:-

1- India has repeatedly refused to resolve territorial issues with Bangladesh despite a signed agreement between the two countries in 1974. Instead, India has used the non ratification of the border agreement and its reluctance to find solution to maritime border dispute to pressurize and keep successive Bangladeshi governments preoccupied with border disputes. The belligerent stance of Indian border forces along 4096 km.

2- India has poignantly declined to meet its water sharing obligation with Bangladesh. Bangladesh has 58 trans-boundary rivers, and many of these rivers are fed by the river Ganges that flows from Northern India into Bangladesh. One such example is that in 1974, India intentionally built the Farakka Barrage 10km away from the border with Bangladesh to control flow of the river thereby depriving Bangladesh of water.

3- India’s aggressiveness towards Bangladesh is not limited to border disputes and the abuse of water sharing treaties. India actively supported— and still does today— a number of secessionist movements in Bangladesh. India took advantage of Bangladesh’s geographic proximity to its Tripura state and mobilized its military and intelligence apparatus to provide assistance to Shanti Bahini. The aim of the movement is to exploit the desire of the local Chakma tribes for greater autonomy with an ultimate goal of creating Jumma land-an independent state for Chakmas. Indian involvement in providing money and weapons to tribal insurgents in the Chittagong Hill Tracks since 1976.

4- India has also adopted a protectionist policy on trade with Bangladesh. India has extracted heavy concessions for its goods but has not reciprocated for Bangladeshi goods reaching the Indian market. This has resulted in a trade deficit of $2 billion dollars with India. The net effect of this policy is that India has managed to exert a considerable economic stranglehold over the Bangladesh economy.

To counter some of these measures America instructed the Bangladeshi army to support insurgent movements in India — like the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). The US also worked to strengthen ties between Bangladesh and Pakistan. But these initiatives made little headway and failed to lessen the grip of pro-English Congress Party and her allies. However, when BJP came to power in India in 1999 and the Bangladeshi National Party (BNP) took the reigns of power in Bangladesh in 2001 tensions between the two countries cooled. This was because both leaders of both parties in both countries were American agents.

Nonetheless, America was unable to turn this advantageous situation into a successful outcome, as she was completely consumed by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hence no significant progress was made on any of the important bilateral issues as mentioned above.

Third: Sequence of political events in Bangladesh
When the formation of Pakistan was announced in 1947, it included the territory of Bengal and this was then known as the East Pakistan and later came to be called as Bangladesh. It was led by the National Awami Party which was under Mujib ur Rehman who was raised and grew up in Christian missionaries and started a national campaign for the people of Bengal separate itself from Pakistan. In 1966, he set a 6 point programme for his party which he founded in 1960 on the name of Awami League which was aimed at separating East Pakistan from the Western part. General elections were held in Pakistan in December 1970 in which the Awami Party won a majority and secured 162 of the 313 seats in the Pakistani parliament.

Then president of Pakistan, General Yahya Khan indefinitely delayed the formation of the new parliament on the ground that the Awami Party was to demand that the parliament lays down a constitution for the country within 120 days as provided in the constitutional clause for amending it and it proposed to incorporate its six-points program which would lead to bifurcation of Pakistan. Therefore Yahya Khan asked Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the leader of the Peoples Party, which was opposed to Mujib ur Rehman’s demands and Insist on the unity of Pakistan, to hold discussions with Mujib ur Rehman and convince him to go back on his demands. But Mujib ur Rehman refused to budge and persisted in his demands and called for nation wide protests and demonstrations which created major chaos across the country.

There was a major rebellion in East Pakistan in march 1971, Mujib ur Rehman who unilaterally declared the formation of Bangladesh was arrested and taken to prison in West Pakistan, but India in connivance with guerillas and militant supporters of the Awami party in East Pakistan launched a military attack in December 1971 infiltrated into East Pakistan and reached the capital city Dhaka on 16th December, 1971and declared the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan on the same day. Mujib ur Rehman, who was released by Pakistan in early 1972 immediately left for the British capital London and held a press conference there on 6th January, 1971 and then came to his country as the ruler under the patronage of Indian soldiers.

India was then ruled by the Congress Party led by Indira Gandhi who pursued a pro-British policy and supported Mujib ur Rehman and his party, the Awami League to come to power in Bangladesh. Indian armed forces stormed into capital Dhaka and helped Mujib ur Rehman to achieve his objectives. He was also supported by Britain whose media services created an anti-Yahya Khan atmosphere of public opinion.

In January 1975 decided to take over the president ship of the country and consolidate the armed forces under his direct command. He introduced a single party rule then banned and harassed all the opposition parties. The armed forces staged a coup against him on 15th August, 1975 accusing him of creating chaos, indulging in corruption and subjugating the country under Indian hegemony by forming a special armed forces command under the name of Rakkhi Baheti(The Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini was a highly controversial political militia force formed in 1975 with a status of an elite force which was loyal to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

It was assigned an apparent functionality of recovering arms from the civilians but actually acted as an armament to protect the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman-regime from military coup and other armed challenges.) to achieve his aims. He was further accused of serving Indian interests. Some of the soldiers assassinated him and his entire family except his daughter Sheikha Hasina and her sister Sheikha Raihana who happened to be outside the country on that day.

Situation worsened in the coming years and the country faced coup after coup in quick succession and in fact three military coups took place within three months until the pro-US General Zia ur Rehman seized power and promised to hold general elections in the country. A referendum was held in April 1977 which brought General Zia as president. Presidential elections were conducted where he was elected as president of the republic. Martial law was revoked in 1979 and elections were held and General Zia’s Bangla National Party (BNP) won a majority of seats. In the new political environment created by General Zia wherein political activity was permitted, Sheikha Hasina could now return to her country.

She came to Bangladesh on 17th May, 1981 after a six-year stay abroad –in Germany – following the killing of her father Mujib ur Rehman and his family members. During this year’s period, she shuttled between England and India since her relations with these two countries were excellent like her father’s, and she is like her father’s which are agents of the British. Her return emboldened her party which was backed by Britain and during this period, General Zia was murdered on 30th August, 1981. However the armed forces did not allow her and her party to return to power in the wake of General Zia’s killing, rather Abdul Sattar, an aide to the late General Zia was appointed as president of the country.

When the army found Abdul Sattar to be weak and feared the return of the Awami Party to power, Abdul Sattar was dethroned in a bloodless coup by General Hussain Mohammed Irshad in 1982 and he became the president towards the end of 1983. Although General Hussain Mohammed Irshad formed a political party called the Jatiya Party to make a political base for himself, his tenure as president until 1990 was marred by chaos and there were widespread and violent protests against his rule and he was forced to resign. He was sentenced to jail and was later released.

Thus the period from General Zia’s assassination on 30th August, 1981 and until 1990 was not stable from America’s position, but even the British influence was not much in evidence. But by February 1991, when elections were held, America was able to turn the tide in favour of the BNP led by Khalida Zia, General Zia’s widow and she won the elections. In August 1991, the parliament approved a law to transform the country from a presidential form of governance to the parliamentary system and in September 1991 the constitution was amended to give executive powers to the prime minister rendering the president’s post as a titular and honorary head of the republic.

Situation remained so and sometimes the British would have the upper hand through the role of their Awami League and sometimes the US would gain power through their allies the BNP coming to power….

Parliamentary elections were held in February 1996 wherein the BNP led by khlaida won the election easily because all the other parties boycotted it, so the election was ordered again in June 1996 in which Sheikha Hasina Wajid, the daughter of Mujib ur Rehman won the election and became the prime minister . Her role continued until 2001.

In October, 2001 elections were held again wherein the BNP led by Khalida Zia won in coalition with the Jatiya Party of General Hussain Mohammed Irshad and the Jama’at e Islami. Sheikha Hasina alleged irregularities in the elections, refused to accept the results and demanded fresh elections, but America was quick to support the BNP and accepted the results as valid. The spokesman of the US State Department issued a statement on 5th October, 2001 and declared that America accepts the election results and urged all political parties of Bangladesh to do the same. [BBC: 05.10.2001]. Thus the coalition led by Khalida Zia continued in power until October 2006.

Under the law of Bangladesh, formation of an interim or transitional government is required for a period of 90 days until the next elections are completed. But the Awami League refused to accept the appointment of the K.M Hassan, the ex -Chief Justice of Bangladesh as the interim President, accused him of being inclined towards the BNP and demanded the removal of the Chief Election Commissioner M Azeez and his deputies accusing them also of being in league with the BNP. When these demands were not met, her party created disturbances and violent events took place lasting for full week which forced the Chief Election Commissioner M Azeez to resign from his post. Accordingly, the Bangally president Yaj-uddeen Ahmad decided to be him self the interim prime minister to held the elections in Jan 2007 .

This strengthened the popularity of Sheikha Hasina and she became more popular than Khalida Zia of the BNP since the latter part of Khalida Zia’s rule i.e. from 2001 until 2006 was very corrupt and she lost her popularity. Hence America feared that if the elections were allowed to be held under such circumstances, Sheikha Hasina was certain to win and the British would again gain influence in the country. Therefore it supported the armed forces to hold on to power and delay the holding of elections as long as possible until the US and her allies were in a position to set things right in their favour so that their influence could prevail in the country.

So the army forced the president Yaj-uddeen Ahmad to impose emergency and cancel elections which were scheduled to be held on 22th January, 2007. The emergency was imposed in 11 Jan 2007, and the elections were canceled. After that the president resigned, and the ex-Bangladesh central bank chief Fakhr uddin Ahmed became the interim prime minister, then he formed a so-called ‘technocratic’ government in order to rescue Bangladesh from dire economic chaos, because Fakhr uddin Ahmed was an economist and aimed fight political corruption the country.

In order to postpone the elections indefinitely, the armed forces chief of staff of Bangladesh remarked that democratic elections were not feasible in an unstable country like Bangladesh. More than 150 politicians, businessmen and government officials were arrested on charges of corruption including the former prime minister Sheikha Hasina. The British exercised their influence to secure her release and deputed six of the parliament members who sent a letter to the Bangladesh government which was published in the British daily ‘Times’ on 23rd July, 2007 wherein they had demanded the release of Sheikha Hasina.

The Bangladesh government did not respond to their letter and when emergency was proclaimed in early 2007, she spent her time outside the country as she was prevented by the interim government from returning to the country. But Sheikha Hasina insisted on returning and spent two weeks at the Heathrow Airport in London before finally heading home. But she was arrested on arrival in Bangladesh on 7th May, 2007 and remained in prison for one year. But this imprisonment did not serve the purpose it was meant to and her popularity increased in public… then on 3 September, 2007, the interim government arrested Khalida Zia who also spent a year in jail. This was meant to seize the opportunity from the British and their agents in Bangladesh so that they could not exploit the arrest of Sheikha Hasina and affect the popularity of Khalida Zia and her followers.

But America realised that by now the popularity of Khalida Zia was waning, so they tried to cobble up a coalition that could withstand and confront the forces loyal to the British and their Awami League. Hence America began to nurture Mohammed Yunus, a Nobel Prize winner and other politicians from Sheikha Hasina’s party immediately after the formation of the interim government. Mohammed Yunus was called as the ‘Poor man’s banker’ and he was asked to form a new political party called the Nagrik Shakti (People’s Power) and this formation was announced on 18th February, 2007.

This new political party had the backing of the interim government as well as the armed forces so that the US could have a new base after its former BNP had lost its popularity or at least have another political force parallel to its earlier ally which could confront Sheikha Hasina’s Awami League and weaken it by enticing the poorer sections of the society to its side. Sheikha Hasina expressed her displeasure at this development and told her followers:” The new generation of politicians is dangerous elements and they should not be trusted, they may cause more harm than any good.” [BBC: 19.02.2007]. However, Mohammed Yunus could not make use of the advantage he had been given and was stopped by Sheikha Hasina.

Now the US had no other option but to reach some sort of an agreement with Sheikha Hasina or other British agents and remove any obstacles in the path of her coming to power and protect American interests, and indeed it did so. As soon as Sheikha Hasina was released from prison 11th June, 2008, she travelled to the United States on the very next day and stayed there until 6th November, 2008. It appears that mutual issues were sorted out during this period and arrangements were made with her in consultation with Britain that America’s security and trade interests will be protected.

This became evident when after her victory in the elections and assuming charge of country’s prime minister she offered an investment and trade agreement with the United States and America called for setting up of a new regional force to fight terror….it was clear that these agreements were concluded earlier but were not announced. These agreements were reached before the elections and Sheikha Hasina herself stated this in a statement reported by Reuters on 7th February, 2009, she said:” I had this idea before the national elections held on 29th December, 2008, but the details were not public until today.”

Thus, as a result of her understanding with the US, and after two years of emergency, elections were held on 29th December, 2008 wherein her Awami League achieved a landslide victory securing 75% of the votes. The national opposition led by Khalida Zia received a major drubbing at the polls getting merely 10% votes.

The huge margin of victory could not have happened without America’s consent or intervention by the Bangladeshi army. Indeed, US welcomed Hasina’s victory. In testimony to Congress, US Assistant Secretary Blake said that President Barack Obama’s administration was upbeat about the world’s third-largest Muslim majority country due to its commitment to democracy and because “extremism finds little popular support.”Blake said the election was “the fairest and most transparent” vote in Bangladesh’s nearly 40-year history.

This indicates that America expects Hasina to make use her newfound majority in parliament to press ahead with the pro-American reforms started by the interim government. On a visit to Bangladesh last month, US Assistant Secretary Blake reiterated the type of reforms US had earmarked for Bangladesh. He said, “The U.S. will continue to support Bangladesh as it extends its democratic roots and will help Bangladesh with economic development, education, and humanitarian response to natural disasters.” If Hasina does not reciprocate then it is fully anticipated that the US will oust her from power.

But this may not be easy for America to accomplish. This is due to two major factors. First, the opposition has been decimated by the general elections and is in disarray. It will take considerable time remould the BNP and its allies to mount an effective challenge to the Awami League. To mitigate this hurdle the US has told Hasina to reach out to the opposition. Second, the continuation of the Congress Party’s rule in India means that the British have substantial means at their disposal to not only thwart such a move, but also increase the magnitude and scope of the existing problems that have plagued bilateral relations between the two countries.

The Indian government has already started to meddle in Bangladesh’s internal affairs. In April 2009, Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon met Hasina during what was widely reported as “a surprise visit” and told her that her life was in danger. Subsequently, Hasina took steps to upgrade security for herself and her family.

Fourth: It must be noted that though the British agents were able to assassinate General Zia ur Rehman in 1981, the US had acquired excellent means of control over the armed forces during his tenure. This is why despite his murder; the British agents were not in a position to assume power following the demise of General Zia ur Rehman and Abdul Sattar, the late president’s deputy became the new president. And when the army realized the weakness of Abdul Sattar and feared that this weakness could be exploited by Britain and her agents to come back to power, General Hussain Mohammed Irshad staged a bloodless coup in 1982.

Yet, the atmosphere during that period was not very conducive for the US either; this is evident from the conduct of General Irshad who restored the parliamentary form of government in 1986 and revoked it again the next year only to restore it once again in 1990 in an attempt to stabilize the political situation. This hesitation and wavering indicates that this relative stability was not really to the advantage of America. General Irshad was pursuing the policies of General Zia who was pro-US especially in leading the country towards market economy which the US had fervently pursued during the era of President Ronald Reagan and by trying to entice the Muslim sentiments by officially declaring 1988 that Islam is the state religion of Bangladesh which he incorporated into the constitution and included a clause to that effect.

He pursued in this General Zia who revoked the secular foundation of the state and the constitution which Mujib ur Rehman did, and had laid down and replaced this with Islam. Also General Irshad changed the name of his Jatiya Party into National Islamic Party, and formed an alliance with Khalida Zia in 1999 and included the Jama’at e Islami of Bangladesh. This coalition under Khalida Zia succeeded in winning the 2001 general elections.

The Bangladesh army tried its best to weaken Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, so when the armed forces realised that after the 2006 fall of Khalida Zia’s government which was allied with the US, the balance of power was tilting to Sheikha Hasina’s Awami League’s advantage, it imposed martial law “emergency” through the country’s president. And canceled the elections which was scheduled in 22 Jan 2007.

All this signifies the differences that the army had with Sheikha Hasina which were visible even when she was in power. India wanted to exploit her closeness with Sheikha Hasina as fast as it could. India wanted to weaken the border guard (Bangladesh Rifles) and create a rift between the Bangladesh Rifles and the Bangladesh army, so it launched a bloody attack against them in connivance with Sheikha Hasina’s government in the end of Feb last which resulted in the killing of some 100 guards. The BBC reported on 7th March, 2009 that the army was angry at the performance of the government in this matter.

It was also reported on ‘YouTube’ that there was a heated exchange of argument between the army leadership and Sheikha Hasina which lasted 3 hours wherein the army expressed their anger and displeasure with her and severely criticized her handling of the issue. The government was clearly embarrassed when this exchange was leaked and therefore it announced the banning of this website as well as other similar sites. This clearly demonstrates that all is not well between the army and Sheikha Hasina’s government, as well as that she is still very close to India and therefore with Britain and not completely allied with the US despite her agreement with them.

The army is not on good terms with Sheikha Hasina and her government and it harbors Islamic sentiments which means that it would work better with governments that are similarly placed and not with those that are inclined towards secularism. Which means the army is closer to Zia ur Rehman and his party rather than Mujib ur Rehman and his party…

The geographical location of Bangladesh is strategic, both in regional terms as well as globally and this is because of its location and natural advantages…

The political situation is volatile; sometimes Britain dominates through the Awami League and sometimes it is the US which uses the BNP to exercise its influence.

The present political situation is worrying and that is because although Sheikha Hasina is loyal to Britain, she has made some concessions to the US as well and offered a trade and investment agreements with it. The US has called for setting up of a new specialized force to combat terrorism.

In fact, the US had floated this much earlier, Reuters reported a statement of Richard Boucher, US Asst. Secretary of State on 7th February, 2009, wherein he urged Bangladesh for setting up of this force. This was after his meeting with the Bangladesh Interior Minister Sahara Khatoon, he had said: “This is an excellent idea and we want to study it carefully.” But six months later, the US had still not approved the Bangladesh proposal because it wanted this force to be a regional force under its political influence and executive control.

On the other hand under British influence, Bangladesh wanted it to be a regional force comprising Britain and India along with the US, which is not acceptable to America… Further, Bangladesh continues to be allied with Britain and concludes agreements with India that facilitate Indian influence. One instance of this is the suggested transit agreement and setting up of a port in the Bay of Bengal…

Thus, Sheikha Hasina’s agreement with the US is rather fragile and America will do its utmost to keep Bangladesh tightly under its stronghold. And in future, Britain along with the Congress Party of India will also exert all its efforts to retain Bangladesh within its grip. This does not bode well for Sheikha Hasina’s government because a conflict between US and Britain in Bangladesh will be volatile and not passive except if one of them succeeded to make the balance of power tilting to his side. Their agents are the fodder for a conflict.

Allah has hardened their hearts, may Allah protect the Muslim from their mischief and sustain them on truth, and He (swt) is all powerful.