Monday, October 04, 2004

Bangladesh: A New Indian RAW Assessment

Bangladesh: A New Indian RAW Assessment

[Excerpt: How true! As the US Deputy Assistant Secretary Torkel L. Patterson said during his recent visit to Dhaka said, "Democracy is not free. Political parties should not take it for granted. It needs to be worked on. If you are not careful, you may lose it." But, politician is a curious breed, always playing to the gallery. Unless and until the two `daggers-drawn' political rivals Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina come to terms with each other and evolve functional cooperation, Bangladesh as a nation will slide back to justify Kissinger's infamous statement that Bangladesh was an "international basket case." That would surely make a mockery of the sacrifices of its founding fathers and thousands of Bangladeshis and Indian soldiers who died fighting for its creation.]

Bangladesh on the Downslide: Insecurity and Tension After August 21st Attack

Col R Hariharan (retd)

Insecurity

"Insecurity, political tension, corruption and hunger have put the country in a very bad situation," a Bangladesh columnist has realistically summed up the worsening situation in the country,commenting on the developments after the infamous attack on Sheikh Hasina and other top leaders of Awami League on Aug 21, 2004 that took 20 lives. All the four elements of this situation have linkages that make it difficult for the country to move forward unless the government and the political parties make up their minds to do so.

The sense of insecurity has surged all across the country. The reasons are clear. Despite dramatic government actions to investigate the Aug 21st attack such as calling the Interpol experts, FBI specialists etc., neither Bangladesh government nor police appear to have any clue to the crime. Even after more than a month, none of the culprits have been identified or caught. There is a nagging suspicion that probably they do not want to share the information with the public. In a knee-jerk reaction to the mounting criticism of police inaction and as a show of force, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) and the Para-military BDR are currently carrying out a `special drive' to arrest criminals in different areas of the capital since September 23rd and have rounded up more than 500 persons. During the raids they also seized 20 firearms and seven other weapons, 39 rounds of ammunition, eight Molotov cocktails and 16 explosives.

According to news reports, about 5,000 people were rounded up till September 25th in a countrywide anti-crime operation. The DMP chief has claimed that the ongoing drive was nothing special. "It's part of our routine work. Now we just intensified our drive ahead of Ramadan," he had said according to agency reports. Ostensibly the police drive is a follow-up of the reported direction given by the Minister for Home Affairs Lutfozzaman Babar, to keep law and order under control ahead of the month of fasting so that "people can pass their holy days in peace and security". But there is another side to the story. The Bangladesh Institute of Human Rights in a press statement has condemned the mass arrest of the "innocent" people in gross violation of human rights in the name of crackdown on criminals and demanded their immediate release. There appears to be some grounds for the apprehension that the ruling BNP coalition is trying stifle protest moves of the opposition to the increasing lawlessness. For instance, Police are carrying out mass arrest of leaders and activists of Awami League and its front organisations in Rajshahi district. Police in Rajshahi are reported to have arrested as many as 74 people in one day. In custody are a total of 41 Awami League and front organisation leaders from Rajshahi Metropolitan area alone. This casts a doubt on the ulterior motive of the police crack down; is it to suppress the voice of the opposition or is it a plain and simple police drive against criminals?

Police drive against criminals in Bangladesh always sends shivers through the poor people for very good reasons. The Rapid Action Battalion, a special task force, has to its credit 15 victims in shootouts with criminal gangs during the last month and a half. These are touted mostly as encounter killings; some are deaths after interrogation in custody. There had been allegations that some of these are deaths due to torture. Among those killed are local `leaders' of both the major parties ? BNP and Awami League; so the victims' criminal culpability is probably there. It is interesting to note that in 10 of the reported RAB "shootouts" till date, not a single RAB member or police personnel have been injured or killed!

Political tension

Sheikh Hasina, evidently shaken by repeated attacks to eliminate her, has stopped participating in public events. Her security concerns prevented her from participating in the recent session of the country's parliament - Jatiya Sangsad. She is now protected by dozens of private security guards at her residence, besides more than a score of official security staff. On top of these, closed-circuit cameras and metal detectors cover entry points, apart from guard dogs.

The U.S. has been concerned about Bangladesh becoming a cockpit of Islamist terrorism. After a recent visit there, CIA's Directorate of Operations, Ambassador J. Cofer Black explained, "Bangladesh's situation is of great interest to us. The United States is opposed to all terrorists. We approach terrorism as a global issue. On my last trip, I got some good insights from the Indian team on what is going on in Bangladesh. We're very mindful that countries that have the will to resist terrorism are supportive. We are looking at Bangladesh more closely. I'm personally interested in having an accurate picture. We plan to look into 'and if correct' confirm the Indian view. Ours is a very interested position. We need to determine exactly the threat of terrorists not only to Bangladesh but also the potential utilization of Bangladesh as a platform to project terrorism internationally."

On September 20, US Ambassador to Bangladesh Harry K. Thomas had a meeting with Sheikh Hasina, to "deliver a letter" to her from US Secretary of State Colin Powell in reply to her earlier request for US involvement in the official enquiry into the August 21st attack. The extracts of the letter published by the media contains a few significant points made by Colin Powell. "Democracy represents a tremendous achievement for Bangladesh. The attack on the rally and the series of violent incidents in recent months are the work of those who oppose democracy and seek to undermine law and order in Bangladesh. These incidents also hurt Bangladesh's image and ability to attract much-needed foreign and domestic investment.

"The United States will continue to support the full and complete investigation of the August 21 and other attacks in a fair, transparent and expeditious manner. It is critical that all Bangladeshis cooperate fully with these investigations. [Awami League had been boycotting the government investigation and the victims have refused to cooperate with the police. This is perhaps a suggestion to the opposition to cooperate and to the government to carryout the investigation in a transparent manner. It also hints that the government had not carried out the investigations into the earlier attacks in a fair and credible way.]

"To prevent further political violence in Bangladesh, we support the discussion of issues in an open and democratic forum. All parties have a duty to avoid incitement. I encourage a rapid end to strikes that threaten the country's economy and stability." [There are two suggestions in this: one, the ruling coalition and the opposition should sit across the table and discuss the issues rather than reacting militantly to each other's political manouvres; two, the opposition not to resort to strikes and other provocative political acts.]

But the 64-dollar question is whether either party will heed Colin Powell's call. As of now, there are no overt signs of any such moves.

Economy

Political acrimony between the two major parties is the bane of Bangladesh. While the attack has generated a lot of public sympathy for the Awami League, it has also given rise to the apprehension that the country is heading for another spell of political chaos and social strife. Businessmen and many friendly countries including the U.S. and U.K. would like the two parties to bring down the political temperature so that democracy survives. Unless a climate of confidence is created new investments would not be coming in. A case in point is the sudden silence on Tata's much hyped investment of $ 2 billion in Bangladesh to establish several manufacturing units. The scheduled agreement signing ceremony between the Tatas and the Board of Investment (BoI) in September was cancelled. Now there is a big question mark whether this investment would come through at all. Logically, unless the political violence ends and the internal security situation improves dramatically in the coming months there will be second thoughts on any fresh foreign investment.

This will be a pity. According to the recently released United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) `World Investment Report (WIR) 2004: The Shift Towards Services', despite a discouraging global foreign investment scenario during the year 2003, Bangladesh had shown a dramatic increase of 133 per cent in FDI from $ 52 million in 2002 to $121 million in 2003. Unlike India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Bangladesh had not been attracting foreign investment. So this increase represents a tremendous achievement for the country. However, this momentum will come to a grinding halt unless the security situation improves and political stability and peace are restored in the country. Jorgen Lissner, Resident Representative of UNDP in Dhaka has commented that the performance of South Asian countries was impressive at a time when global FDI inflows experienced a 17.6 per cent negative growth and that of Bangladesh was even much better than other countries in the region. However, he pointed out that frequent hartals and other political disturbances may divert FDI flow to other countries in the region as competition to get FDI has been getting tougher every passing day. He drew attention to the expiry of the multi-fibre arrangement at the end of next December, and said that unless the politicians become more careful in dealing with the issue, `roaring economies' such as China and India would `create havoc for the country'.

The Asian Development Bank in its `Asian Development Outlook Update for 2004' has also projected a gloomy scenario for Bangladesh's economy in FY2004-05. This year Bangladesh had the worst ever floods in the last 50 years followed by heavy rainfall. So after the devastating floods in July and August played havoc with the agriculture operations ADB has had a re-look at its earlier positive projection. Besides, it has also drawn attention to the negative impact likely to follow when the global ready-made garment quota regime ends in December 2004 on the economy. Based on these observations ADB has revised estimate of Bangladesh's GDP growth from 6 to 4.8 per cent in the current fiscal year.

"Fears about the economy rolling back due to natural calamities and political instability are no longer unreal," warned a Bangladeshi columnist. How true! As the US Deputy Assistant Secretary Torkel L. Patterson said during his recent visit to Dhaka said, "Democracy is not free. Political parties should not take it for granted. It needs to be worked on. If you are not careful, you may lose it." But, politician is a curious breed, always playing to the gallery. Unless and until the two `daggers-drawn' political rivals Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina come to terms with each other and evolve functional cooperation, Bangladesh as a nation will slide back to justify Kissinger's infamous statement that Bangladesh was an "international basket case." That would surely make a mockery of the sacrifices of its founding fathers and thousands of Bangladeshis and Indian soldiers who died fighting for its creation.

(Col R Hariharan is a specialist in counter-insurgency intelligence. He had seen active staff and field service in counter-insurgency operations in Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab,Tripura and lastly in Sri Lanka with the IPKF)

South Asia Analyst Group 30/09/2004