Democracy Returns To Bangladesh

Mashuqur Rahman

Mashuqur Rahman

Photo: Munem Wasif, DRIK News.

A Muslim majority country of over 150 million people just held a high-turnout peaceful democratic election. The secular Awami League won a landslide victory in Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections and is poised to send back to power Sheikh Hasina – one of two women who have led Bangladesh in the past – as the country’s Prime Minister. In the process, the Bangladeshi voters sent the Islamist political party, Jamaat-e-Islami, into political oblivion. The Jamaat secured 2 seats in the 300 seat parliament while the Awami League secured 230 seats. This election was a stunning repudiation of military rule and of the Islamists in a country that has suffered from both. However, as democracy triumphed in Bangladesh, the world barely took notice.

It has been a long and painful road back to democracy for Bangladesh. Nearly two years ago, on January 11, 2007, the Bangladesh army seized power in a military coup, ostensibly to save the country from political violence ahead of impending parliamentary elections. The army seized power with the tacit support of Washington and London, and was cheered on by elements of Bangladesh’s civil society. The army postponed elections, declared emergency rule, suspended fundamental rights, and launched an “anti-corruption” drive to apparently root out political corruption (a favorite excuse of all military juntas). In sweeping raids the army arrested major political leaders, including Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia (the leaders of the two largest political parties in Bangladesh), and charged them with corruption. As the two major political parties faced army pressure, the Islamists were ascendant. The army also tried to engineer a political party of its own. In the process, nearly half a million citizens were arrested and many were tortured. Journalists were intimidated, beaten and tortured into submission.

While 150 million Bangladeshis were living under the gun, the United States State Department looked the other way – even refusing to acknowledge that a coup had taken place in Bangladesh.

It all looked to be going swimmingly for the military. They had devised a “Minus-Two” plan. The aim was to exile the two leaders of the major political parties and engineer Bangladeshi democracy with a prominent and permanent political role for the military (a la Pakistan). The plan ran into problems when the two leaders refused to go into exile and the political parties, especially the Awami League, refused to buckle. So, the army jailed the two leaders on corruption charges. The army also soon heard from the Bangladeshi people. As Bangladeshi students took to the streets, the army cracked down. But in its heavy handed response to the uprising, the army had shattered the illusion of benevolent rule of the gun. The army had turned on its own people. It was now only a matter of time before the army would be forced to exit. The only unknown was what shape the exit would take. The political parties now had the initiative and they used it to great effect.

From the beginning, the army had a window of two years to either consolidate its position or exit – a timetable that coincided with the end of the Bush administration. Right on schedule, the army is set to leave power in Dhaka just as the new administration takes power in Washington.

Now, as the army is about to leave power and hand democracy back to the people of Bangladesh, questions remain and the damage must be assessed.

The army has made a mockery of the rule of law in Bangladesh. The army set up kangaroo courts and forced politicians into jail – some on charges of massive corruption and others on absurdly trumped up charges. Yet, ahead of the elections, most of these corruption charges have mysteriously disappeared. The two leaders – Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia – were charged with massive corruption. They were considered so dangerous to Bangladesh by the army that they were held under special laws in the interest of national security. The United States cheered these arrests as the “rule of law”. An unaccountable regime was locking people up and running kangaroo courts while the most prominent democracy in the world applauded. It was a sad spectacle. Now, those charges are gone but the mockery of the rule of law remains.

The entrance of the army two years ago was enabled as much by Bangladeshi civil society as it was by the United States and the United Kingdom. The lure of reengineering the political system by force was too much for civil society to resist. The hard work of democracy – the need to make your case to the population and earn their vote – was not required. It was a short-cut to the fast lane of politics. Civil society sacrificed the fundamental rights of Bangladeshis in the “national interest”. It was argued in breathless op-eds in major newspapers in Bangladesh and in the halls of power in Washington that the smart kids could “clean up” Bangladeshi democracy – with the help of the gun. They rested on the fairy tale that unaccountable power at the barrel of a gun, and the suspension of fundamental rights, was a pathway to a functioning democracy. In this fairy tale, they neglected Bangladesh’s own history with military rule and the previous long struggle back to democracy. By enabling the military in its coup, civil society has legitimized military intervention in Bangladesh. This will be a difficult genie to put back in the bottle.

As Bangladesh now attempts to send the army back to the barracks, it must find a way to ensure the army stays there in the future. Bangladeshi democracy was nowhere near perfect – no democracy is. But, in spite of the corruption that existed in Bangladeshi politics, Bangladesh prospered economically and had managed three free and fair democratic elections and peaceful transitions of power over 15 years. Now, Bangladesh must restart that clock. The Bangladeshi Constitution, with its enumerated rights, is a strong foundation to build toward a lasting democracy. But, it cannot be done if military intervention is considered legitimate.

Bangladeshis are a resilient people. Democracy is Bangladesh’s original birth wish. After all, the country gained independence because its people expressed their will at the ballot box and then gave their lives to defend that vote. That is a legacy that every Bangladeshi must remember and honor.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the people have now voted overwhelmingly to send back to power the Awami League – the political party that led the independence movement for a secular Bangladesh. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the Bangladeshi people have once again rejected military rule and the Islamists.

Today, Bangladesh’s future looks a little brighter. The Awami League comes to power with the hopes of 150 million people placed in its hands. There is much work to do, and much damage to undo. We watch, with hope.

Mashuqur Rahman [http://www.docstrangelove.com] is one of the highest read Bangladeshi-American bloggers. Critically acclaimed for his incisive analysis on Bangladesh, US foreign policy and dedicated advocacy of human rights.

[Read posts by Mashuqur Rahman]


223 Responses to “Democracy Returns To Bangladesh”

  1. Riaz Arshad Rahman

    The conspiracy to derail democracy is still on. Morally and intellectually corrupt elements are already out there to smear Awami League’s landslide victory.

    TIB, Shujon, and Shushil Shamaj are already trying to pollute the post-election period by uttering irresponsible remarks. Muzaffar Ahmed of TIB is already trying to belittle Awami League. They have no way of riding to victory through peoples’ mandate. THE ONLY OPTION FOR THEM IS THE BACKDOOR WITH BACKING FROM UNDEMOCRATIC EVIL FORCES.

    Muzaffar Ahmed and alike who have no prospect of being elected are not at all happy at Awami League getting over 250 seats. They had thought that there will be a hung parliament so that the two former PMs and their parties could be kept out of power. In such a scenario it would have been possible to lengthen the stay of fascist aspirants like Muzaffar Ahmed, Kamal Hossain, B Choudhury, Rehman Sobhan, Debapriya and others.

    Awami League should be very careful about the anti-Awami League axis very much active on sabotaging the overwhelming victory.

    Muzaffar Ahmed was a cabinet member of an unelected despotic government soon after the assassination of Sheikh Mujib. He should not be talking about how to enshrine democracy. He is what in Bengali we call ‘Gaanpuppy’.

    This vested interest group is also spreading lies about so-called post-election violence. Many trivial scuffles or domestic and personal feuds are being projected in the media as revenge seeking by the victorious party.

    The Awami League top brass has already asked the police and law enforcing agencies to severely deal with any such incidents.

  2. Journey To Infintive

    Dr. Debapariya Bhattacharjee is not in the country now. But he is not hard core Anti AL. But Yes I have agreed about Muzafar Ahmed. Mash Bhai has presented a very clear picture in here.

    Muzafar ahmed questioned Hasina should be clear on corruption charge before taking PM’s Office. But Constitutional expert DR MA Zaheer has not agreed on such conditions.

    Dr Badiul Aama Mazumdar is questioning about corruption charges of new elected MPS and blah bah.

    Prothom-alo has already mentioned Dr Mohi uddin khan Alamgair as controversial.

    No Charge is proven against one of the most brilliant & Vocal administrator of Bangladesh history

    Basically from the very first day even before taking power some so called Intellect have already imposed pressure on AL to finish the war criminal issue.

    Hasina has already seek help of United Nations. But I doubt about the intention of this Shujon and all if they really want the punishment of War criminals or not. Instead of teaching us the lesson of democracy, They should help Govt to collect the documents and all against war criminals as our Shahid Janani Jahanara Imam and all.

    We want successor of Jahanara Imam and Humayn Azad. we don’t want any fake people who are shedding crocodile’s tears for Po liberation force and looking interest of anti liberation force via Balance theory.

    Thanks to the Blogs like Doc Strange Love, Genocide Bangladesh, Uttar shuri and people like who are doing great academic work against these war criminals.

    Now Shujon and all have to prove “action speaks louder than word.” Other wise they will be nothing but a chunk of bankrupt elites.

  3. Mashkur Hussain

    Awami League has won a historic mandate. Let them take office first and then let the democratically elected parliament decide how to address issues.

    Shujon, Shushil Shomaj, many NGOs and people like Yunus are tools of foreign powers to keep us labelled as ‘the poorest country’ on earth. I know from different souces that Bangladesh is enormously rich in natural resources. If Hasina means business she can elevate Bangladesh to a new plane of development in just 5 years not by 2020 as drummed by the donors and the outgoig unconstitutional government.

    Mr. Muzaffar Ahmed was a minister in Zia -ur Rahman’s government before the blood spilled in 1975 had dried. He is widely known to be staunchly anti-Awami League by heart and soul like many so-called intellectuals of the country like Yunus, Abed, Syeduzzaman, Debpriya, Akbar Ali Khan and many others.

    Awami League has huge support among common people. It should not be afraid of pseudo-intellectuals like Muzaffar Ahmed who are bent on damaging AL’s image even before they had assumed power.

    Hasina should work hard, deal strictly against corruption and choose ministers carefully to discharge the trust and responsibilty bestowed upon her by the teeming millions who voted for the boat symbol overwhelmingly. She must deliver on all socio-economic ails of the country!

    JOY BANGLA! JOY BANGABANDHU!

  4. Rinnie Zaman

    I too am fed up at Muzaffar Ahmed and Akbar Ali Khan. These guys are daily appearing on private TV channels with their unnecessary advice and counsel for the politicians. Are they buying airtime on those channels with money from their own pockets?

    Its better that Muzaffar Ahmed and Akbar Ali refrain from making irresponsible remarks.

    I am sure Sheikh Hasina has enough expertise and experience in herself and her transition team to take appropriate decisions for the country.

  5. Tanoy Dutta

    I don’t think Akbar Ali khan is coming on same genre. He is a quite honest and strait forward person.

  6. Engr Khondkar Abdus Saleque

    Mahajote led by Bangladesh Awami League achieved landslide victory for its decalred pledges- vision 2021,Charter for change , control of price spiral and trial of War criminals.New voters, women, and freeddom loving innocent villagers voted for mahajiote to bring changes.This victory has put Mahajote in greater challenges.They must translate their pleges to reality.Given the prevailing situation and past proven track records it is not going to be easy>The world economy is tottering from global recession , ipmpacts of unprecedented oil crisis, prevailing food crisis will create massive challenge. The new government will have to prevail over synddicates to control price of essentials, will have to control energy mafias to create new power generation and transmission infrastructures, will have to engage diplomatically with indiua and Myanmar to settle maritime boundary dispute to start exploration .

    The new government will have to deploticise civil and military administration and offcourse will have to try war crminals.The new government will have to make its actions transparent so that people who voted them know what they are doing.There should not be any new Hawa bhaban.Identifie criminals of 1996-2001 like Hazary, Osman, Taher, Maya and likes must not be allowed to vitiate the politics.People will stand beside Hsian and her government if they endeavour sincerely to achieve what she pledged.

  7. Rashed Karim

    Sheikh Hasina has spelled out her vision in clear terms. We have had enough of advice from vested quarters. Hasina has enough competent people around with allegiance to help her achieve the goal.

    She must focus on food surplus, price reduction and law and order situation. She will need very capable people to manage finance and commerce, home, foreign, power, agriculture and food, telecommunications and LGRD ministries. This time it has to be a teamwork to honour the massive landslide for AWAMI LEAGUE.

    I am sure Hasina has the managerial skill and intention to do so.

    Talkshows with so-called civil society members is irritating and annoying.

    Akbar Ali Khan was strongly behind Yunus’ failed political party when he launched it before the CTG took over. Yunus had thought he was more popular than Hasina and Khaleda. If this guy had contested his fate would have been worse than Badruddoza Choudhury or General Ibrahim.

    Even today Akbar Ali is a member of a commission appointed by theFakruddin setup. I think he was the convener of his dhokabaji party. He is also an opportunist and a proponent of the World Bank and IMF axis to retard growth in poor countries through their disastrous prescriptions.

  8. Calypso

    Was this Akbar Ali Khan a founder of Professor Yunus of Grameen Bank’s failed political party?

    Had Hasina been so naive she would not have led her party to a landslide historic win. The more I see her the more confident I feel in her wisdom. She has matured lately. Nowadays, she talks more like a statesperson. I am sure she will transform into one of Asia’s best leaders.

    Therefore, its unnecessary for anyone to advice on matters relating to statecraft steering before the victorious Awami League takes office. Hasina has a lot of confident and smart MPs and advisers to depend on.

    She should concentrate and focus on home, foreign affairs, power and energy, oil and gas exploration, food price, agriculture, and LGRD first and foremost.

  9. Engr Khondkar Abdus Saleque

    This is perhaps the most intelligent forum of very accomplished persons. Mahajote is not required to borrow ideas from high sounding theoreticians. Nation has given them mandate on their declared election pledge. They must have done required homework and formulated contingency plan, short, medium and long term plan to achieve their targets. There are many high quality professionals and academicians among Bangladeshi expatriate communities who will eagerly assist ant good plans of the government Massive FDI will flow to Bangladesh if transparent policies and quick decisions can be made. Mahajote must not bother about the pessimistic unrealistic left leaning university teachers.

    Journalists and positive thinkers must realize our large neighbor does not sincerely want Bangladesh exploit our resources and fuel heir agents to create impediments. Mahajote must ensure that immediate actions are taken to explore our huge g high quality coal and Offshore Petroleum resources.

  10. Boka Manush

    Bangladesh Sushil Samaj have always backed Military intervention because that is the only way they can go to power. If people vote, they will never win. Dr. Kamal Hossain is the perfect example.

    Sushil Samaj never believed or will ever believe in democracy

  11. Tanoy

    http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=70269

    TIB clarifies Muzaffer comment

    Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) yesterday said its chairman’s comment on December 31 about the chief of the winning party in national polls was his personal opinion, not the TIB’s stance.

    In a seminar titled “Curbing Corruption and Good Governance in future Bangladesh”, Prof Muzaffer Ahmad said, “The chief of the winning party, now on parole, should not swear in as the prime minister until the pending cases filed against her are disposed of.”

    “The comment he [Muzaffer] made in the seminar is his own opinion; it is not TIB’s stance,” said a TIB’s press release yesterday.

    It said there is no connection between the comment of its chairman Prof Muzaffer and the organisation.

    TIB Executive Director Dr Iftekharuzzaman said, “The people who participated in the elections maintaining proper process and were elected as peoples’ representatives are fully eligible to be sworn in as the members of the parliament as per the constitution and laws concerned.”

    “Cases of corruption or breaching law would be disposed of as per proper legal and judicial process if they have any case or allegation against them,” he said in the press release.

    TIB expects that the corruption allegations and other related issues would be settled through neutral judicial process, he said, adding that none can be regarded as guilty until being proved in proper judicial system.

    At the same time it is not rational to deprive someone of constitutional rights on the basis of mere allegation or case, he said in the press release.

    Bit Funny

  12. Showme

    i am very much surprised that most writers are telling same story that awami league got landslide victory and democracy established and form govt with honest people, the truth is AL got landslide victory and form govt but the reality is who are those people who voted AL,,80 percent of our people live in village and rural area ,, how mcuh education we were able to give them to take decission methodically(taking consideration in many different parameter),,,not much ,, so i will say those voters are biased and emotional(as a bengali we are alwasy emotional),,they dont have much knowledge to claim that they know the true meaning of the leadership,,,so my conclusion is that AL and Sheikh Hasina got huge mandate but that doesnt prove she is a true and bold leader to lead a nation which has 150 million people and 80% percent(130 + million) who live under proverty and without proper education

  13. Javed Zaman

    The biggest threat to democracy in Bangladesh comes from people who have no link with the common masses but have media-driven voices multiplying their miniscule acts manyfold. These include many NGOs and so-caled Shushil Shomaj paper tigers and tall talking late-night show guests professing to be messiahs!

    The elected government does a lot lot more in reality but is hardly appreciated. For example the government hospitals handle a staggering number of patients on a daily basis at a fraction of fees private clinics,labs or hospitals charge but are hardly mentioned in the press.

    This popularly elected government seems to be focused on coarse and fine tuning these efforts to help the poor where it matters the most.

  14. Kolimullah

    This Akbar Ali is what you see daily on TV commenting on every matter which is very irritating both for the eyes and ears.

    He is like a jack of all trades but master of none. He was also a co-founder of Yunus’s failed political party. He was Saifur’s tail-wagging pet but was able to continue with Kibria while remaining staunchly loyal to BNP during AL’s 1996-2001 tenure. Consequently, he became
    the cabinet secretary when BNP came back to power in 2001.

    I think this guy is also holding a government post while bashing it at times. He may stab AL from behind again.

    The only way people like Akbar Ali Khan or Younus can get to power is through army-backed puppet government like the f—–—- Fakruddin-Moin government supported by democracy-harming foreign governments and their locally stationed diplomat-cum-plotters.

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