The biting winter weather in which Bangladesh looks set to bid farewell to 2019 is not dissimilar to the way the year started. Then too, a cold wave had set in to greet the New Year, and for the 11th straight year, it saw the Awami League holding the reins of political power. This was not the same as all the other years though - except perhaps the very first one, that too only in that an election had just been held (on December 30, 2018), and the result had been a crushing majority for the AL's 14-party coalition over its great rival the BNP and its 20-party coalition, that this time around was supplemented by a secondary alliance led by Dr Kamal Hossain's Gono Forum.
The result handing the AL and its allies 292 seats out of the 299 contested was gazetted in barely 48 hours. The likes of Mirza Fakhrul and Dr Hossain cried foul, but in Bangladesh's context, where everyone who loses an election always cries foul, they created little traction. The winning side's MPs (which included the Jatiya Party) were done taking their oaths by January 3rd. The BNP dithered and huffed and puffed. This would become a recurring theme over the coming months. In the meantime they were even left behind by their allies, as the Gono Forum MPs took their oaths in defiance of the party's stated position. Eventually, 4 of the 5 BNP MPs (as gazetted) did go ahead and take their oaths, and relatively to their small number in the House, gave some spirited displays on the floor of parliament, in conjunction with their lone women's reserved seat MP, Barrister Rumeen Farhana. Yet the utter dysfunction into which then party has fallen can be surmised by the fact that the lone holdout, as the 90-day timeframe allowed for oath-taking ran out, happened to be Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the party's secretary-general under whom they contested the election. In the absence of Begum Khaleda Zia, who remained incarcerated throughout an entire calendar year for the first time, and Tarique Rahman, who has been granted political asylum in the UK we learned, Mirza Fakhrul is the de facto party chief, but his authority has been too often undermined from too many directions for him to make that count much.
With no indication from the opposition to stage a political comeback, the government could always afford to ride out any source of discomfort to what is now comfortably the longest reign in power enjoyed by any political faction in independent Bangladesh. It now looks that they will be able to be there in in office to usher in the Golden Jubilee of the country's birth in 2021. Before that though, there is the matter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's own birth centenary, for which the ruling party has already made some grand arrangements.
Meanwhile, further evidence of the AL's dominant position in domestic politics came in the last quarter of the year, in the form of what was possibly the most exciting episode in the country's political life in 2019: with nary a warning (granted it may have defeated the purpose), Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced, and ordered a 'cleansing operation' of her own party's rank-and-file, through which the country's citizens, even those who had resided in and gone about their lives in the capital for decades, came to learn of a whole new side to their nation that they had no idea about.
Russian Roulette in Motijheel
One night in September, as gamblers called out bets around craps and roulette tables at a sports club in capital Dhaka, dozens of black-clad security forces burst inside. Punters were ordered to the floor as police and members of the Rapid Action Battalion cracked open iron vaults full of cash. By the end of the raid, more than 140 people had been taken out of the makeshift casino in handcuffs.
At the same time in another part of Dhaka, commandos were raiding the home of the suspected casino organiser, Khaled Mahmud Bhuiyan, an influential leader of the Jubo League, the AL's youth front. The raid at his home discovered stashes of liquor, cash and illegal arms.
The raids were part of the cleansing operation or campaign that the prime minister launched earlier that same week by expelling the top two leaders of the Bangladesh Chhatra League, the AL's powerful and increasingly rabid student front. It was only the beginning. More raids would uncover activities that made jaws drop for most citizens of the country where officially at least, gambling is illegal, alcohol consumption requires a permit and where paying bribes is common not just for lawbreakers but for those seeking normal government services.
Sheikh Hasina declared stamping out corruption as her government's priority and promised even political allies won't be spared. Indeed, they would be first in line.
"This is an acknowledgement that corruption, extortion and unlawful activities have permeated the ruling party to the grassroots," said Ali Riaz, a professor of political science at Illinois State University, in an interview with the AP. It remains to be seen how high up the campaign will be allowed to reach, he added.
"Casinos and the unbridled power of the party leaders are just the tip of the iceberg of the corruption and absence of any accountability in the country," he said.
So far the campaign, which was launched in September, has netted several ruling party members charged with running illegal casinos, money laundering and possessing illegal arms. Security forces have recovered millions of dollars' worth of cash, and stockpiles of weapons and gold. More than 600 bank accounts have been frozen.
There can be no questioning that the prime minister has been able to attempt such a crackdown because she wields immense power after over 10 years at the helm of government. "Investment and politics have become synonymous in Bangladesh," said Ifekharuzzaman, executive director of the Bangladesh chapter of Transparency International, the corruption watchdog. "A collusion of politics, business, and bureaucracy and law enforcement" has created an "infrastructure" of corruption.
When she launched the campaign, Hasina seemed to acknowledge that if corruption were allowed to spiral, it could set the stage for a repeat of events of January 2007, when a military-backed caretaker government took control of the country, in the episode that came to be known as '1/11', for the date on which the military took over.
"We're taking measures in advance so that no 1/11-like incident can happen again in the country," Hasina said in September. "The purge must begin from my own house."
One of the people arrested, G.K. Shamim, a construction company owner who had ties to the ruling party, is accused by investigators of corruption on government projects, including building the headquarters of RAB. At the time of his arrest, his company was the contracted party in scores of construction projects for the government.
The Anti-Corruption Commission is now said to be investigating more than 20 people for possible involvement with illegal casinos, money laundering and other financial crimes, including Omar Faruque Chowdhury, who is related to the PM through marriage and was leading the youth front as a septuagenarian. In a meeting led by Hasina, Chowdhury was stripped of his post while a criminal investigation continues into his activities. In his place, the elder son of the slain Sheikh Moni, Sheikh Fazle Parash, has been handpicked by the PM to instill values and discipline anew in Jubo League.
Khaled Bhuiyan, who is accused of running the casino, G.K. Shamim and Omar Faruk Chowdhury have all maintained their innocence in court. Some analysts see the campaign as a response to increasingly brazen corruption that could threaten the government's ambitious development agenda.
Bangladesh's economy has averaged more than 6% annual growth since Hasina came to power in 2009, largely fueled by its garment-exports business, the second largest in the world. That growth has lifted millions out of poverty, helping Bangladesh surpass wealthier neighbours like India on some human development measures such as life expectancy and reproductive health. Most outlooks in the medium term expect the growth to continue. A surge in onion prices late in the year is not expected to affect the rate of inflation as much as had been feared by hikes of up to 550 percent in the price of the essential bulb. But consumers have learned to cope (see page 32).
But anti-corruption campaigners say corruption has cost the country 2-3% annual growth - which is probably on the higher side. Hasina herself has blamed corrupt "termites" for eating into her government's development budget.
So far, the punishment for those convicted in the crackdown has been fairly light. Another ruling party member accused of running a Dhaka casino empire and found with illegal drugs and liquor among other contraband, Ismail Hossain Chowdhury Samrat, was expelled from the party and sentenced to six months in jail. For the crime of money laundering alone, he could have faced up to 12 years in prison.
The anti-corruption campaign has expectedly proven popular with the public, and so far has proven to be a low-risk campaign. Critics point out it hasn't touched central leaders, any bureaucrats or established businessmen. The risk, if any, to the image of the party has been kept to a minimum.
It also remains to be seen whether the campaign is able to reform the Chhatra League, which to most Bangladeshis has proven the bigger headache with their undying propensity to harass, extort and engage in violence. Politically, this year saw the return of student politics to the forefront, although not always, in fact regrettably never, for the right reasons. Protests flared up in multiple campuses pitting students often against the senior administration officials, who were accused of corruption or gross misconduct at such citadels of learning as Jahangirnagar. Soon after the new government assumed office, it was announced that elections to the Dhaka University Central Students Union would be held for the first time in nearly three decades.
Whatever the plan was, you couldn't really object to what on the face of it promised to be a good thing - the revival of DUCSU, with its rightfully proud history of activism over issues dear to the heart of the people. Although those stories belonged to a different era, certainly!
When the elections were finally held, someone must have misplaced the script. Or at least part of it, including the most important role of all in the 25-member body. The results announced by DU Vice Chancellor Md Akhtaruzzaman around 3:20am on March 12 showed Nurul Haq Nur, a leader of the quota reform movement that had come to a head in 2018, secured the top post of vice-president (the VC serves as president) with 11,062 votes. Other than that, the panel backed by the pro-Awami League student organisation mostly swept the hall unions in the election that ended in intimidation and irregularities with 59.5 percent voter turnout.
Earlier in the day, Nur had been assaulted by BCL men at Ruqayyah Hall. It was the start of a trend that continued throughout the year. A conscientious and forthright young man, Nur has stood tall throughout the year, trying to work with a DUCSU committee in which over 90 percent of the members make no secret of the fact that they hate his guts, spread vile and baseless rumours against him and openly defy his authority. Oh, and the number of times they have engaged in outright violence against him is beyond counting by now.
In the latest incident, activists of a faction of Muktijuddho Moncho, mostly comprised of Chhatra League men, beat up and injured Nur, storming into his office at the Ducsu building. At least 27 of his supporters were injured in the attack (at least two of them were hurled from the floor of the Ducsu building) after Ducsu Assistant General Secretary and BCL leader Saddam Hussain threatened Nur with dire consequences if he didn't leave his office.
The Moncho, claiming to be comprised of freedom fighters' children, was founded in October last year to counter the anti-quota demonstrations led by Nur and other quota reformist leaders. Five of the injured, including Nur, were still receiving treatment at the hospital as Dhaka Courier went to press for the last time in 2019. Two of them are being kept at the ICU. A 9-member medical board has been formed for their treatment.
The sheer mindlessness of the violence and brazen nature of the attack invoked the memory of the late Abrar Fahad, perhaps the saddest story of the year in Bangladesh. An articulate and intelligent first-year student attending BUET, he was brutally murdered in the first week of October by Chhatra League men in his dormitory. His apparent fault is not worth mentioning. The incident shocked the conscience of the nation though, resulting in prompt arrests of the accused, as protests raged through campuses, none more so than BUET. In the aftermath, arguably the most venerable institute of higher education in the country was forced to ban student politics on campus. It was left with no choice possibly, given the atrocity that forced it to act. But the enduring lesson from 2019 may well be that politics on campuses are well and truly alive. In need of reform certainly, but not going away anywhere soon.
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