Political purification

Observations on Bangladesh

Last month, Bangladesh's army-backed caretaker government appeared ready to send into exile the leaders of the two main political parties - Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League. The decision was reversed under international pressure: it suggested a lack of transparency, which the present suspension of democracy is supposed to address.

The state of emergency, administered by the former World Bank official Fakhruddin Ahmed, is intended to "cleanse" the politics of a country that has for years appeared among Transparency International's most corrupt in the world. The previous government was marked by its tolerance of Islamic extremists, notably the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, which bombed and killed opposition politicians, judges and members of secular cultural organisations. Political meetings are now banned, and tens of thousands of people have been arrested - Human Rights Watch puts the number at over 100,000. Trade-union activity in the 2,000 garment factories has been halted.

Arrests have come close to the leadership of the two main parties, including former ministers and the sons of the immediate past prime minister. Most people approve of these developments, as the present stability allows them to go about the business of earning the wage which enables them to eat at the end of each day.

But the function of the administration is to prepare free and fair elections. These should, according to the constitution, take place after a three-month interregnum. Elections have been promised "before the end of 2008". In London late last month, Sheikh Hasina asked why 18 months is needed: the war of liberation took only nine months.

A worrying question hovers over the ongoing purification rituals. Where was the idea of dismantling the existing political structures crafted? Critics are suspicious of the US state department, and Washington's desire to ensure that its version of a "moderate Muslim democracy" prevails.

Bangladesh urgently needs relief from corruption, mismanagement, cronyism and poverty. A majority is prepared to give the present regime the benefit of troubling doubt, although anxiety remains that new brooms do not always sweep as clean as advertised. The administration may wish to disable the main political protagonists in Bangladesh, but the strife-scarred story of the country cannot be smoothed over at will.

Military rulers rarely abandon power readily, and Bangladesh is ill-equipped to heal the violent antagonisms that have marred the 35 years of its existence.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?