[Saleem Samad, Canada]
Bangladesh for obvious reasons is under scrutiny by global watchdogs. Equally, the think tanks and international press have also included the country of 150 million. The recent dramatic political development – transition to democracy in several countries including Thailand, Nepal and Pakistan has rise the expectation for Bangladesh.
Transitions to democracy in some of the developing countries in Asia, the political observers can see light at the end of a tunnel. Nepalese are preparing to change their century old kingdom into a republic. While Thai military generals have vowed never to interfere in state polity and had returned to the barracks. While in Pakistan, after decades of military subjugation, there is a change of heart among the Generals and have conceded their failure to manage the country. The global watchdogs are keenly observing the reforms agenda Bangladesh, hoping transition to democracy.
For little more than a year of anti-corruption and anti-crime drive committed to the nation by the interim government, Bangladesh is still lagging far behind on the list of world’s most corrupt nations. However, this time the nation is sandwiched between Zimbabwe and Cambodia. Not very impressive though! Because other indicators apparently were rated very weak. Like the good governance and democracy, which the military brass have failed to mention in the blueprint when they decided to take charge of the beleaguered Bangladesh.
Political rights rating declined from 4 to 5 due to the installation of a military-backed caretaker government in January 2007 and suspension of planned elections coupled with imposition of a state of emergency, which curtails political activity, freedom of assembly, and media freedom. The international bodies including United Nations have deplored the curb of fundamental freedom of the citizens to speak their mind, assemble and the right to union.
Washington based Global Integrity Report 2007 states that Bangladesh overall rating is 64 of 100, thus painting a grim picture. Despite the interim government made efforts to turn the table, it has failed to delivery the wishful target they set forward.
“Bangladesh has serious problems with the anti-corruption and governance framework and there is significant gap between written anti-corruption law and actual implementation.” Government’s accountability (executive, legislative, judicial) and the civil service are all rated as very weak. Freedom of information is very limited and political financing is effectively unregulated. No steps have been taken for the issues under audit of the international organisations.
The report, however states that civil society organisations, whistle-blowing measures, privatisation, anti-corruption agency, budget process, are strong but average. This is not a positive sign, as civil society organisations are accepted watchdogs and should have the liberty to stretch their elbows. Therefore, there remains none at the sideline to point fingers at the players, which needs attention on pressing issues.
The weakest issues are access to information, political financing, National Ombudsman, executive accountability, judicial accountability, legislative accountability, state owned enterprise, access to justice, law enforcement and few others. No laudable initiatives were taken by the quasi-military government to ensure accountability and transparency in every sphere of life.
Bangladesh is still competing with Nigeria and Uganda in the 16th position (from the bottom) having a score of 95.9 in the Failed State Index 2007, as monitored by Washington based Fund for Peace.
The five core institutions: Leadership, Military, Policy, Judiciary, and Civil Service have been stated weak by think-tank Funds for Peace. On the other hand, the civil service is politicised, corrupt, and inefficient. It would indeed be an uphill task for the interim government, who have made loads of promise to halt criminalisation of politics and civil administration.
The Global Integrity Report points that the military routinely becomes involved in government affairs and is currently backing the interim government. Since General Ziaur Rahman (1975-1981) grabbed power and systematically militarised the civil administration, state management and included military officers in politics after giving them early retirement.
This policy encouraged the dreaded security service (DGFI) to enjoy an upper hand in state polity. DGFI continued to practice unhindered during the democratic governments of Khaleda Zia (1992-1996, 2001-2007) and Shiekh Hasina (1996-2001). Such interference by state security agency jeopardised the transition of democracy, even after last military dictator General Ershad quit power in 1990 in the face of violent street protests.
Despite democratic regimes of the two-woman prime ministers, the joint forces under uniform military officers, the elite anti-crime squad and police were given responsibility in implementing the government’s anti-crime campaign, when hundreds of suspects were tortured and killed in custody. When the news surfaced in the press, the human rights groups were outraged and accused the government for arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and extra-judicial killing. The elite crime fighter RAB has been blamed for tortured suspects and committed extrajudicial killings, says the report.
Although the interim government formed independent judiciary, but it is not entirely free from executive influence. A backlog of cases is one of the judiciary’s major nightmares. The World Bank provided credit to help Bangladesh reform its judicial system so that it can become more efficient and accountable. Judiciary reform continues to be an ongoing project.
The judiciary is yet to demonstrate that it is independent sans the government influence, or the security agencies are not intimidating the magistrates and judges. Most of the District Magistracy and Speedy Trial Court judgements are glaring examples of interference of the government. The judgements are arbitrary, illogical and mysterious, as most defender of human rights interprets.
The press freedom always stood far away from being free, despite the interim authorities reiterates to have given enough freedom to journalists. The press under de facto military regime in 2007 experienced blanket censorship, which still exists in a different name “press advice”. The press receive “advice” which news should be killed. Why the news will not see light of the day remains unexplained.
Journalists who were tortured and detained never received apology from the government. Those journalists, who were killed, attacked and tortured by henchmen of politicians rubbing shoulders with the power during the regimes of Khaleda and Hasina failed to get justice. None of the perpetrators was arrested, none of the suspects was quizzed for murder and attack of the scribes. Incidentally, many of the suspects were arrested for political crimes, extortion, tax evasion and money laundering.
Nevertheless, Washington based Freedom House in its Freedom In The World 2008 report says, Bangladesh experienced a reversal due to the introduction of emergency rule in January, the suspension of scheduled elections, and the curtailment of civil liberties and press freedom, were identified as severe blow on good governance and democracy.
Persecution of religious minorities like the Hindus, Ahmadiyya Muslim, Buddhists, Christians and cultural minorities (animists) in Modhupur, Sylhet and Chittagong Hill Tracts have continued unabated.
Religious freedom has never improved since the nation embraced Islam as state religion two decades ago. It was expected that after the military installed interim government came to power in early 2007, the status of religious freedom would improve. The predators remain illusive.
Even in 2008, Bangladesh remains in the watch list of the United States International Commission for Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
To conclude, Bangladesh present quasi-military ruler has failed to set standards for good governance, transparency and accountability. There are indications that they are also failing to meet the strict deadline for transition to democracy.
Possibly the issues addressed above, prompted the “Countries at the Crossroads 2007”, an annual policy document by Freedom House made crucial recommendations, while the government continues to engage in reforms exercise:
• The caretaker government should immediately rescind the state of emergency and make necessary arrangements for holding free and fair elections …
• The role of caretaker governments should be limited to assisting the Election Commission in organizing credible general elections, making sure that the administration does not get involved in promoting a particular group or party.
• The Election Commission should be reformed to ensure that it is completely free from government interference. The commission should be empowered to amend current campaign finance laws and regulations, and to strictly enforce them to prevent candidates’ use of illicit “black money.”
• The government should increase the resources devoted to investigating attacks against the press, paying particular attention to violence committed by thugs associated with political parties.
Saleem Samad [http://bangladeshwatchdog.blogspot.com] — an Ashoka Fellow — is a journalist best known for his investigative reporting on military oppression in CHT and Jihadist militancy in Bangladesh. Currently living in exile in Canada for his articles in Time, Tehelka.com, Daily Times. He specializes on intelligence, conflict, Islamic militancy in South Asia, particularly in Bangladesh.