Event ReportsPublished on Jun 07, 2009
The government has been successful in maintaining harmony with the military and preventing it from reacting violently in the aftermath of Bangladesh Rifle's mutiny.
Reflections from Bangladesh

Bangladesh created history following a voluntary transition of power by a military backed caretaker government to a democratically-elected government in January 2009. Awami League, the winner of the December 2008 parliamentary elections rode to victory on its promise of change. Sticking truly to its promise of change, it inducted fresh faces in the Cabinet, many of whom were first time ministers. In spite of a landslide victory, the government faced turbulence due to the sudden rebellion of the border guards from Bangladesh Rifles (BDR). The mutiny caused nearly 70 deaths, mostly of army officers deputed to BDR.  

The following are the impressions gathered during a recent visit to Bangladesh.

Politics: Just after the elections both the political parties -- the ruling Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party -- vowed to suspend their traditional politics of confrontation. The Opposition promised to cooperate with the government but the reality appears to be far from this. The Opposition boycotted the Parliament from the very first session, citing the government’s partial attitude in allotting seating arrangement to the Opposition members. The Parliament is functioning without the presence of the Opposition members, except one member of the Liberal Democratic Front. Efforts to bring the BNP and its allies to the Parliament have failed so far.

The Opposition in fact is gearing up to launch anti-government agitations. One such issue is the dispute over Tipaimukh dam on river Barak in Manipur. But with BNP struggling to resolve its internal power struggle, the government is not likely to feel the heat.
Though many of the veteran leaders of Awami League were left out of the present cabinet, the party has managed to remain united. Hasina has been able to maintain harmony between the young ministers who were given priority in the Cabinet over senior party leaders. Awami League’s effort to keep the price of rice low has helped in maintaining its public support.. The government has also passed its first budget focusing mainly on socio-economic development. Special allocations were made for education, health, education, information technology etc. The budget hardly received any opposition.

However everything is not going as expected for the government. The erratic power situation in the country has emerged as a major challenge for the country. To deal with the power situation the government has come up with the innovative idea of using the day light by rescheduling its timing by an hour. The local Bangladesh time now stands seven hours ahead of GMT. People are, however, skeptical about its impact on the energy situation.

The deteriorating law and order scenario is also a major challenge for the government. There have been reports that the anti-socials have reactivated their networks in the country.

The most important issue that emerged as a major challenge to the government is the issue of implementation. The bi-partisan politics that has penetrated deeply in the society has greatly influenced even in the working of the government officials, who are major facilitators for the implementation of the government politics. Prime Minister had to urge the officials to perform their official duties detaching themselves from political ideology.

Analysing the present political scenario, an election does not appear to be in the near future.

Debate over Caretaker government: The military-backed caretaker government, replaced by the elected one, has sparked off a major debate about the credibility of the political system. Bangladesh has the unique system of a caretaker government that comes into power for three months from the date of dissolution of the Parliament to hold free and fair elections. The military-backed caretaker government has been accused of violating the Constitution by staying in power more than the stipulated period. Again, many of the reforms undertaken by the caretaker government have been in violation of the Constitution. Some argue that the system of caretaker government must be abolished and the Election Commission strengthened. Others, on the contrary, support status quo.

Presently, pressure is mounting on the government to try out different functionaries of the caretaker government. The government has already removed the Chief of Anti Corruption Commission General Hasan Mashud Chowdhury. Voices are also being raised advocating trial of the then military chief General Moeen Ahmed.

Military: The government has been successful in maintaining harmony with the military and preventing it from reacting violently in the aftermath of Bangladesh Rifle’s mutiny.  Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, however, faced ire of some of the military officers during her visit to the Dhaka Cantonment on March 1, 2009, just after the BDR carnage. General Moeen Ahmed was sent into retirement as his term ended on June 15 2009. General Md. Abdul Mubeen, promoted to the rank of general from Lieutenant General, took over as the new Army Chief. Gen Mubeen had served as GOC in Jessore and Chittagong and was made Principal Staff Officer to the Armed Forces Division on June 4 in 2008. The government has also dismissed seven army officers, without giving any reasons for their dismissal. These officers were among those who raised questions at the `darbar` held in the Dhaka cantonment attended by the Prime Minister on March 1. Many felt that resentment was running high among the army officers over the government’s handling of the BDR mutiny. They apprehended that any simple failure on the part of the government to maintain its equation with the army might provoke a violent reaction from the officer corps. In fact, some held the view that the biggest threat to the government today is the army. Hence the government had to be extremely cautious in dealing with the army. The government’s relations with the army will largely be dependent on its equation with the new army chief.

Fundamentalism: The problem of fundamentalism is being handled strongly by the government. A large number of cadres of radical organisations have been put behind bar. People’s participation in its fight against radicalisation is the most important recent development in the country. There had been many incidents where people have passed on information about the activities of the fundamentalist groups. The general feeling among the people is to separate religion from the politics and the culture of the land. However, there has been steady increase in the people’s assertion of their religious belief. Many people said that it was important for the government to deliver its promise to prevent radicalisation of the country. Failure of the government to do so will strengthen radical forces, like the Jamaat, which are well organised and enjoys better financial resources.

India-Bangladesh Relations: There is hardly any event in India that misses the attention of the intellectuals of Bangladesh. Almost in every discourse India is referred to, be it politics, economics or any other issues. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi are widely respected in Bangladesh. Return of the UPA government has infused fresh enthusiasm among people concerning the prospect of India-Bangladesh relations

Of the various issues that are waiting to be resolved between the two countries, people feel that economic relations, particularly the trade gap, must be given priority. Bangladesh has around 3 billion dollars of trade gap with India. Certain section of the society, though agreed with India’s constraints in reducing the trade gap, as their own country has very little to offer that India can buy, still argue that some efforts should be initiated by India to balance the trade. They also advocate total withdrawal of duty on Bangladeshi products.

 On the politically sensitive transit issue, some held the view that use of the term connectivity will be more respectable in Bangladesh. They also argued in favour of reciprocity from India to enhance it’s connectivity with Nepal and Bhutan.

Despite generally positive outlook towards India, there is a lingering feeling of mistrust of India among the people. This skepticism over India has been cultivated by the political parties to attain political objectives. The Opposition is using anti-India rhetoric to oppose the government. Recently, the Tipaimukh has been the Opposition’s favourite target of attack as means of opposing the ruling party. However, India’s prudent move of inviting Bangladesh to send its own team to inspect the construction site of the dam has been widely appreciated. In fact, this move has gone a long way in calming the anti-India propaganda.

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