Monday, April 30, 2007

Three Rajshahi News: Rajshahi poetry Festival; Mayor Minu gets HC Bail; Murder case against Patal

Poetry festival in Rajshahi

A regional poetry recitation festival was celebrated with much enthusiasm featuring a rally, recitation, discussion and workshops in Rajshahi on April 27 and 28.

The two-day celebration, jointly organised by Bangladesh Abritti Samannoy Parishad, Rajshahi Abritti Parishad and cultural organisation Swanan, was held at Ghoramara Padma Mancha with the slogan "Jai, Alok Arunodoy, Jai".

Individuals and different recitation forums from Naogaon, Bogra, Rangpur, Satkhira, Rajshahi and adjacent districts, participated in the programmes.

Renowned litterateurs Professor Hasan Azizul Haq and Ruhul Amin Pramanik inaugurated the festival.

"It is cultural identity that divides people into nations around the globe. People get a new lease of life observing festivals, celebrating their own cultures and heritage," Professor Hasan said in his inaugural speech.

Professor Hasan then led a rally going through city streets heralding the celebration.

The festival celebration committee convenor Mohammad Kamal presided over the session. Among others attending the festival were Hasan Arif, assistant general secretary of Dhaka Sammilito Sangskritik Jote; Ahkamullah and Sharif Ahmed Bintu, secretary of Bangladesh Abritti Samannoy Parishad.

Later in the afternoon, Swanan units at Rajshahi University and Rangpur, Kathak of Nageswari and several individuals recited poems at the Padma Mancha.

Dristy of Bogra, Abritti Parshad of Naogaon, Sampratik Abritti Sangsad and Protiddhoni of Satkhira, Sundorom and Abritti Parishad of Rajshahi and others also presented recitals on April 28.

Some 70 participants took part at workshops during the two-day festival.

Similar poetry festivals were held at Monishura in Khulna division, Narayanganj in Dhaka division and will be held at Comilla in Chittagong region soon.

Mayor Minu gets anticipatory bail in extortion case

The High Court yesterday granted anticipatory bail for two months to Rajshahi City Mayor Mizanur Rahman Minu and two other BNP leaders in connection with an extortion case.

An HC division bench granted their prayer as they surrendered before

the court and sought bail.

On April 21, Shamsul Islam Khan, chairman of Evergreen Model College governing body, lodged the case against Minu and 10 others.

The bench, comprising Justice Nozrul Islam Chowdhury and Justice SM Emdadul Haque, upon a petition, passed the orders.

Advocate Khondaker Mahbubuddin Ahmed and Ruhul Quddus Kazal appeared for the petitioners.


Murder case against Patal filed

A murder case was filed in Natore against former state minister Fazlur Rahman Patal and 16 BNP activists yesterday.

Basirun Nesa, wife of Amjad Hossain of Balitita Islampur in Lalpur upazila, filed the case with a Natore court accusing them of killing her son Shukur Ali on June 1 last year.

The petitioner said BNP cadres at the instance of Fazlur picked up her son and beat him mercilessly to death at Bulu chairman's house in Chongdhupoil.

The court referred the case to Lalpur police for investigation.

Fazlur faces four criminal cases including murder, extortion and land grabbing.

Friday, April 27, 2007

U.S. Officer Accused of 'Aiding Enemy' in Iraq


U.S. Officer Accused of 'Aiding Enemy' in Iraq



Published: April 27, 2007


BAGHDAD, April 26 — The American military has charged a top commander at its main detention center here with nine violations of military law, including "aiding the enemy," a rare and serious accusation that could carry a death sentence.


According to a military statement released Thursday, the officer, Lt. Col. William H. Steele, provided aid to the enemy between Oct. 1, 2005, and Oct. 31, 2006, "by providing an unmonitored cellular phone to detainees" at Camp Cropper, an expansive prison near Baghdad International Airport that held Saddam Hussein before he was hanged.


Colonel Steele, who oversaw one of several compounds at Camp Cropper as commander of the 451st Military Police Detachment, was also charged with several counts of illegally storing and marking classified information; failure to obey an order; possession of pornographic videos; dereliction of duty regarding government funds; and conduct unbecoming of an officer — for fraternizing with the daughter of a detainee since 2005, and for maintaining "an inappropriate relationship" with an interpreter in 2005 and 2006.


There were no further details given to explain the circumstances of the accusations.


Military officials said that Colonel Steele was detained last month and was now in Kuwait awaiting a military hearing to determine whether the case would proceed. They emphasized that he should be presumed innocent.


"Is there enough evidence or information that this needs to go to a court-martial?" said Lt. Col. Josslyn L. Aberle, a military spokeswoman. "That's where we're at right now."


Walter Huffman, a former Army judge advocate general and now the dean of the Texas Tech University law school, said that a death sentence was unlikely, because to convict Colonel Steele of the most severe form of aiding the enemy, prosecutors would have to show that he intentionally endangered American troops or missions. In this particular case, he added, that would mean proving that he knew the cellphone was being used to make calls that would put Americans at risk. "That is a difficult charge to prove," he said.


Mr. Huffman, who emphasized that he had not seen the specific charges or details of Colonel Steele's case, said the fraternization charge sounded as if it was not code for sex but rather a reference to the simple impropriety of regular contact with a detainee's relative. That would take on added seriousness in a Muslim country, where speaking to young women outside of one's family is considered highly inappropriate.


He added that Colonel Steele's rank and supervisory role at Camp Cropper magnified the seriousness of the allegations. "He's the person in charge of enforcing the rules at the prison," Mr. Huffman said. "It makes it an even more egregious offense because of the context."


Regardless of the outcome, the case amounts to another public relations bruise for the American detention system. Camp Cropper was meant to signify reform. It was expanded in recent years as a replacement for Abu Ghraib, where American jailers photographed themselves humiliating and torturing Iraqi prisoners, and it now holds about 3,000 people.


But it has had its share of problems. Several detainees there have died mysteriously in the past year, with the most recent death occurring April 4. The causes of death for these detainees are rarely divulged.


The arrests and treatment of detainees at Camp Cropper is also the subject of a lawsuit filed in 2006 by an American security contractor who said he was unjustly held and mistreated at the prison after acting as an informant for the F.B.I. in cases involving corruption within the contracting company he worked for. A second plaintiff with a similar claim added his name to the complaint in February.


Colonel Steele appears to be only the second American officer accused of collaborating with the enemy since the war in Iraq started four years ago.


In September 2003, Capt. James J. Yee, a Muslim chaplain at the Guantánamo detention center in Cuba, was accused of mutiny, sedition, aiding the enemy, adultery and possession of pornography. The military dropped all the criminal charges the following March, citing national security concerns that would arise from the release of evidence against him. A month later, Captain Yee's record was wiped clean when an Army general dismissed his convictions for adultery and pornography.


In Washington on Thursday, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, told reporters that the violence of the war showed no signs of abating.


North of Baghdad, two Iraqi women and two children were believed to have been killed in an American airstrike that killed four insurgents, according to a military statement.


Soldiers were searching for car-bomb factories near Taji when they came under small-arms fire, the statement said. The soldiers called in an airstrike and later discovered all eight bodies at the destroyed building.


Citing the weapons in the building, a military spokesman, Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, blamed Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia for the women's and children's deaths.


The police said a suicide car bomber exploded his vehicle south of Khalis, in Diyala Province, on Thursday, killing six Iraqi policemen. The police said that four bodies showing signs of torture were also found nearby in a grove of palm trees.


In Baghdad, 26 bodies were found, a higher daily toll than in the first few weeks of the two-month-old security push, and roadside bombs, mortar attacks and car bombs across the capital killed at least 11 people and wounded scores more, according to an Interior Ministry official.


In northern Iraq, two suicide bombers detonated their explosives at an office of the Kurdistan Democratic Party near Mosul, killing three people and wounding 13, according to the mayor of Tal Afar, a city about 30 miles to the south.


The police also said gunmen in Tikrit had stormed the home of Hashim al-Majeed, a cousin of Saddam Hussein, and shot and killed his wife and daughter. Mr. Majeed, who disappeared soon after Mr. Hussein's ouster in 2003, was not at home.


Reporting was contributed by Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi, Qais Mizher and Iraqi employees of The New York Times in Baghdad, and by Paul von Zielbauer and Michael Moss in New York.


First Appeared in The New York Times

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Patronising Militants: Charges Pressed against ex-BNP stalwarts Aminul, Dulu, Nadim

Police last night pressed charges of aiding abetting militants of Jama’atul Mujahidin, Bangladesh against former post and telecommunication minister Barrister Aminul Haque, ex-deputy minister for land Ruhul Kuddus Talukhdar Dulu, former lawmaker Nadim Mostafa in two cases.

Other 54 persons were also accused of torture and extortion in the charge sheets that were submitted at the third court of first class magistrate in Rajshahi. The court will record the charges later.

SI Mukhtar Hossain accused 27 persons including Aminul, Rajshahi district BNP general secretary Shis Mohammad in the case lodged by torture victim Fazlur Rahman with Bagmara police station (PS) on March 30. In this case, police dropped name of Bangla Bhai, as he was hanged.

Sub inspector (SI) Shakil Hossain accused 30 persons including Aminul, Dulu, and Nadim in another case filed by torture victim Ayub Ali Pramanik with same PS on April 1.

“As the charges are pressed, arrest of the former BNP stalwarts became matter of time”, said a senior police officials adding that police is now waiting for ‘green signal’ of government high ups. However, Dulu was taken on jail custody on February 20.

Police mentioned in both the charges that allegations in the cases were found to be true in investigation.

Fazlur Rahman, a poor farmer of Hasanpur village in Bagmara alleged that he was kidnapped, tortured and forced to pay ransom for getting release from the militants in April 2004.

He said in the case that the militants beat him hanging upside down with a tree.

He alleged, Barrister Aminul and Shis Mohammad held meetings with JMJB leaders before tortures.

Another plaintiff Ayub alleged that he was waylaid on way to crop-field in the morning of April 7 in 2004. Armed militants led by killer Mostak’s father Abdul Jalil Amin asked him for toll of Tk 1 lakh.

Ayub quoted Abdul Jalil Amin as telling him during torture, “Police are not sufficient to curb outlaws. We are set to eliminate the terrorists. We need money to function. Our leaders identified you as rich man. So, you will have to pay us toll”.

Jalil named Aminul, Dulu and Nadim as their leaders and talked to the ministers and lawmakers on phone for convincing him to pay, he alleged.

He was tortured until he was agreed to pay toll and provided Tk 80,000 after his release.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Agra to host Bangladesh, Pakistan, India peoples' meet

Agra to host Bangladesh, Pakistan, India peoples' meet

From correspondents in Uttar Pradesh, India, 04:00 PM IST

An organisation working towards 'unification of the subcontinent' and bringing the peoples of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan closer will meet in Agra in August to take forward the movement.
The Bangladesh-Pakistan-Bharat Peoples' Forum, a leftist outfit, had held its last conference in November in Lucknow. It believes that the partition of the subcontinent was a 'grave blunder' and that there can be no peace in the subcontinent unless there is unification.
Forum national president Ram Kishore said Sunday evening that the 'momentum for unification has to be maintained, rather stepped up to ensure peace and progress in the region which has seen many conflagrations in the past 60 years that have only helped the imperialist powers to entrench their tentacles'.
The Agra meet will be attended by members from the parallel organisations in the other two neighbouring countries.
Ram Kishore said the Lucknow declaration had demanded easing of the visa norms between the three countries, promotion of cultural and trade ties, opening up of communication facilities through reduction in tariff, academic collaboration and to significantly reduce budgetary allocations on defence.
'Of late there have been some welcome shifts in perspectives and approaches of the various political parties in the subcontinent. This process of better understanding should be accelerated. Trade can be a major leveller, therefore business interests should be promoted,' he said.
The forum wants the share markets of the three countries opened for cross border investors. It has also decided to jointly hold functions to mark the 250th year celebrations of the Battle of Plassey (June 23, 1757) along with the 1857 mutiny celebrations this year, Ram Kishore told IANS.
He warned of the increasing inroads corporate imperialism was making in all the three countries that were also facing grim challenges from fundamentalists. 'Democracy and free society alone can address the twin problems of extremism and socio economic backwardness,' he added.

Shibir leader Sent to Jail Custody in Prof Taher Murder

The key-accused in Rajshahi University professor S Taher Ahmed murder case and RU Islami Chhatra Shibir president Mahbubul Alam Salehi was sent to jail custody yesterday.

The court of Rajshahi district and sessions judge Abu Bakar Siddik ordered his jail when he appeared before the court filing a miss case seeking ad interim bail.

Salehi’s capture was delayed for 14 months following influence of Jamaat-e Islami leaders on administration, although five others accused in the case were caught within one week of murder.

Pressurised by continued police haunts, Salehi managed ad interim bail from High Court on July 3 in 2006. On January 1 this year, the HC bail was extended for the third time.

But the HC bail, granted for no criminal charges against him till then, went useless on March 18 last when police submitted charge sheet accusing Salehi and five others – Prof Mia Muhammad Mohiuddin, Zahangir, Salam, Nazmul and Azimuddin in the case.

After charge sheet, a magistrate court issued his arrest warrant. But Salehi sought anticipatory bail from the HC. The HC bench of Mainul Islam Chowdhury on March 29 rejected his petition and asked him to surrender before magistrate court.

Instead of surrendering, Salehi filed the miss case with the court that ordered his jail.

Contacted on phone after Salehi’s capture, Prof Taher’s family members feared that Salehi may avail opportunities from lapses remained in investigation due to his running away.

They informed, investigation so far revealed that Salehi took away the revolver, used in murder, and some documents belonging to Prof Taher.

“His (salehi) interrogation may reveal important information”, said Taher’s wife Sultana Ahmed.

“Undoubtedly Salehi’s interrogation may help digging out involvement of some more persons in the murder...but there is no such scope as the case is now under trial”, investigation officer Achanul Kabir told The Daily Star on phone.

“Still there are a number of strong evidences for proving charges against Salehi”, he said informing that some other important evidences are yet to be produced before court for sake of trial.

Apart from judicial confessions of three killers – Zahangir, Salam and Nazmul, Salehi’s activities since the murder provided enough evidences for believing that Mohiuddin hired Salehi for committing the murder for his (Salehi) political influence, said IO Kabir.

“Misusing his political power, Salehi avoided arrest in repeated police attempts...Again, he sat for his masters examinations even though he was declared ineligible for”, said Kabir.

Moreover, Kabir also said, police gathered photographs and videos proving close ties of Salehi and Mohiuddin.

Prof Taher was killed on February 1, 2006 and recovered from a sewer behind his house in RU campus on February 3.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Military fights Bangladesh's infamous graft,1,5525669.story?page=2&cset=true&ctrack=1&coll=chi-newsnationworld-hed

Military fights Bangladesh's infamous graft

By Laurie Goering
Tribune foreign correspondent

April 21, 2007

DHAKA, Bangladesh -- For five of the past six years, Bangladesh's people have ranked their nation the most corrupt on Earth on an international graft watchdog list. It isn't hard to see why.

Economists estimate that thieving politicians, including the families and cronies of the country's two feuding political dynasties, have pocketed more than $5 billion a year by taking a cut of nearly everything sold in the country. About $40 billion in foreign aid has been misappropriated over 35 years in this poor and densely populated delta nation, analysts say.

In Bangladesh, judges throw cases for cash, bureaucrats sell jobs, businessmen run strong-arm cartels and, until recently, outgoing Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's eldest son, Tarique Rahman, was known as "Mr. Ten Percent" for his rapacious skimming.

But this month, Mr. Ten Percent is in jailed awaiting trial, along with a few dozen of the country's other top politicians. His powerful mother is expected to head to exile in Saudi Arabia within days, rather than face corruption charges. And her longtime political rival, Sheikh Hasina, has been told that if she returns Monday as planned from an extended holiday abroad, she faces prosecution on corruption and murder charges.

In surely one of the strangest political turnarounds in the world, this South Asian kleptocracy now finds itself run by a military-backed government took power three months ago intent on restoring democracy by prosecuting or exiling the nation's most powerful politicians as part of an unprecedented war on corruption.

That the top two targets are women -- usually seen in aid circles as the less corruptible sex -- only adds to the oddness of the whole affair.

"It's definitely surreal," said Iftekhar Zaman, executive director of the Bangladesh branch of Transparency International, the leading international anti-corruption watchdog that releases corruption rankings each year. "But this country was left with no options."

'Unprecedented' turnaround

In January, Bangladesh's military declared a state of emergency in the moderate Muslim nation and installed a caretaker government after efforts to hold elections failed following violent street protests between supporters of the two political parties that for 15 years have battled for Bangladesh's political spoils.

Since then, with enthusiastic backing from the country's fed-up population of 140 million, Bangladesh's new rulers have launched a campaign to root out political corruption as a prerequisite for holding new democratic elections next year.

Poor, crowded and set on a vast flood-prone delta, Bangladesh is best-known for huge death tolls from seasonal cyclones and monsoons. But in recent decades the Iowa-sized country of rice paddies and shrimp farms has emerged as a perfect cauldron for graft as plundering politicians, greedy bureaucrats, bribe-proffering businessmen and the least savory of the nation's many non-profit aid groups look for a way to make an unearned buck, sometimes by tapping into billions in aid money passing through each year.

The new government says it now hopes to change that. After years of foot-dragging, the country signed a United Nations anti-corruption charter that will help its leaders recover illicit funds stashed abroad. It has reinvigorated an ineffective anti-graft commission, demanded financial statements from top politicians and is strengthening laws barring politicians convicted of corruption from office.

"There's never been an example of this kind of turnaround. This is unprecedented," said Zaman, whose organization finds itself in the odd position of consulting closely with an unelected, military-supported government to promote democracy. "It's not the process we wanted. We wanted this done by political leadership. But since they miserably failed to deliver, it has come to this."

Turning around Bangladesh's culture of political corruption will not be easy. Most of the investigators charged with tracking down the real estate records, bank statements and other documents needed to prosecute those now jailed have never done the work before and may be a little anxious about trying to put their former, and potentially future, bosses in prison.

Those arrested have powerful friends and the money to hire the best lawyers in the country, and the country's prosecutors have never prosecuted corruption cases before. In some cases, caretaker officials may be faced with having to prosecute colleagues, friends and neighbors.

In a country where court cases typically drag on for decades, the government has limited trials to 60 days, with adjournments -- a favored stalling tactic -- limited to three days. It has also hired private attorneys as prosecutors and dangled offers of incentive pay for investigators who find evidence that helps win convictions.

But with limited resources "we're going mad trying to investigate all these high-profile cases at once," admitted Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury, chairman of the country's new independent Anti-Corruption Commission.

The fear, said Ataur Rahman, a political corruption expert at the University of Dhaka, is that "if you can't get convictions, the message will be that nothing has changed."

The anti-corruption commission and caretaker government also are trying to revamp key institutions, from removing executive influence in the judiciary to rebuilding the electoral commission, in an effort to stifle future pilferers.

One of the keys, officials agree, is making sure Bangladesh's two political leading ladies exit politics for good. To that end, the government is willing to let them, and perhaps their families, avoid prosecution as long as they agree to leave Bangladesh permanently.

Both face corruption charges, and Hasina faces murder charges as a result of deaths in street riots she is said to have helped provoke last October.

"For the sake of stability, we are anxious they have an honorable exit," said Mainul Hossein, the caretaker government's key law and justice official, and one of 10 technocrats running the country. So far, the effort has enjoyed widespread support in a country where the military is seen as one of the most trustworthy institutions and corruption has been largely the domain of the rich and powerful, rather than reaching throughout society.

"This government needs to stay as long as it can manage the country corruption-free," added Shadak Hossain, 30, an appliance store owner. "No other government can succeed against corruption."

Military's lead worries some

Since the corruption crackdown, sales of his expensive refrigerators, air conditioners and other appliances had plunged 40 percent, he said, largely because "people are afraid of being noticed and investigated for spending lots of money." But his cost of buying goods had also dropped 20 percent, he said, now that the corrupt cartel that used to control wholesale distribution has gone into hiding.

Bangladeshis remember well how neighboring Pakistan's military-led anti-corruption drive ended with the military entrenched in power. Already a few are calling for new elections before the government-set deadline of the end of 2008, and many in civil society worry that "it's easy to bring [the military] into politics and hard to push them back," Zaman said.

Mainul Hossain, the law and justice official, insisted that the government knows its time is limited and that it is focused on creating conditions for new elections. Small-scale political gatherings, now banned under the state of emergency, will be legalized again within a month or so, he said. The government hopes new, better political leaders will rise from the ranks of the old parties, or that new ones will form, and that by the time elections are next called, anti-corruption reforms will have taken root.

The real test for Bangladesh's democracy may well come if they have not.

"Any transition is fraught with risks. There are many ifs, ands and buts before the end of the story," Zaman said. "But with the changes we have seen in the last three months, there are reasons to be optimistic."

First appeared in Chicago Tribune

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Minu sued for abetting extortion!

Ex-BNP lawmaker and Rajshahi city mayor Mizanur Rahman Minu was sued in an extortion case with Rajpara police station yesterday. He was blamed for abetting extortionists and terrorists.

Shamsul Islam Khan of Mohisbathan areas in the city lodged the case accusing the Mayor and 10 others including district BNP vice president Nazrul Huda and former city BNP secretary Shafikul Haq Milon.

Other accused persons are – BNP adherents Sentu, Mainul, Babu, Ranju, Shamsul, Islam, Ashraf and Mamun.

Khan, a governing body member of Evergreen Model College at Baharampur alleged in his complainant that the accused persons are allied with each other and they demanded Tk 4 lakh toll on March 29.

The plaintiff alleged said, Minu called him and the college principal Abu Yusuf Selim at his office during setting up of the college in 2006.

Minu requested them to include Nazrul Huda, Milon and local BNP adherent Sentu in the college governing body, the plaintiff was describing in the case.

As denied, Minu threatened them with dire consequences. On July 4, 2006, Nazrul, Milon and Sentu went to the college and demanded Tk 1 lakh toll for not including them.

However, they forcibly took away 10 pairs of school benches worth Tk 13,000.

And on March 29, the accused persons waylaid Khan at Baharampur Bypass intersection while he was coming out of the college and assaulted him. They demanded Tk 4 lakh again and threatened him with death.

Khan said, all those who are involved with works of establishing the college are facing risks of life following threats of the terrorists.

Mizanur Rahman Minu, talking to newsmen, claimed that the allegations made in the case were baseless. "I am sure my political rivals had roles behind filing of the's a conspiracy".
Aminul, his brother sued on charge of land grabbing
A case has been filed against former post and telecommunications minister Barrister Aminul Haque and his brother on charge of grabbing a piece of land in Godagari upazila.
Mojibur Rahman of Madarpur village filed the case with Godagari Police Station, accusing eight people, including Aminul and his brother Dr Asaduzzaman, on Thursday night.
Two of the accused--Saidur Rahman and Fariduddin--were arrested yesterday.
Mojibur alleged that the accused forcibly captured some 92 decimals of land belonging to him in 2004 for an NGO named Carb.
He said that his wife Nazira Begum bought the land in 1991. After election in 2001, Dr Asaduzzaman, ex-director of Barind Multipurpose Development Authority and chairman of the NGO, wanted to buy the land.
Mojibur said as he refused to sell the land, Aminul and his brother Asaduzzaman tried to force him to give the land.
In 2004, the accused forcibly took possession of the land, alleged the plaintiff, adding that he could not file the case earlier for fear of life.
New lists of Naogaon, Rajshahi criminals
Fresh lists of criminals, especially militants of JMB and PBCP outlaws, are being prepared in seven police stations of Rajshahi and Naogaon districts.
Some 1500 people have already been listed from Bagmara, Mohanpur, Durgapur and Puthia of Rajshahi and Atrai, Raninagar and Manda of Naogaon districts, said sources in the police.
The anti-crime task force and law enforcement agencies have started gathering information on militants, outlaws, political cadres, corrupt government servants and smugglers at the roots level, sources said adding that a crackdown against these listed people would start soon.
The list is being prepared in three phases. In the first phase, names of PBCP cadres and JMB militants have been included.
Secondly, names of those who have been engaged in criminal activities under shelter of political leaders and in the third phase, names of professional
criminals, smugglers and convicted fugitives will be included.
During the last three months, police and joint forces arrested 281 JMB militants and 194 outlaws from different places of the seven upazilas.
After execution of six JMB men including the militant organisation's kingpins, many JMB cadres of the region went underground, but their activities have not fully stopped, said the sources adding that PBCP outlaws are also being reorganised.

The Economist: No going back


No going back

Apr 19th 2007 DHAKA
From The Economist

The army exiles the country's leading politicians


Get article background

ENDING an era in Bangladeshi politics dominated by the two mutually-loathing heads of feuding dynasties, the generals behind the interim administration this week exiled them both. On April 17th, Khaleda Zia (pictured left), leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and prime minister until October 2006, agreed to go into exile in Saudi Arabia—which also took in another exiled former prime minister, Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif. The next day Mrs Zia's nemesis, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, prime minister from 1996 to 2001 and leader of the Awami League, the other big party, was declared a "national-security risk" and barred from Bangladesh.

Mrs Zia had, in effect, succumbed to blackmail over the fate of her two sons, both facing corruption charges. Her departure, accompanied by her younger son, was said to be imminent. Her firstborn, Tareque Rahman, is in jail as the main trophy for the army's anti-corruption drive and unlikely to go anywhere. Sheikh Hasina, who was in America, had threatened to come back to Bangladesh on April 23rd to fight murder and corruption charges. Immigration posts were told not to let her in.

With their leaders exiled, the two main political parties face leadership vacuums, after 16 years in which the two bickering "begums" alternated in power in this country of 150m people. The parties are crippled, with many senior members in jail. Prosecutors are, in effect, choosing the parties' leaders for them. Last week, for example, saw the arrest of Moudud Ahmed, a close confidant of Mrs Zia and in the popular mind the "BNP's brain". The army said it found alcohol and more than 200 saris meant for government relief operations for the poor in Mr Ahmed's bedroom.

So pervasive and debilitating is the corruption in Bangladesh's public life that the army's drive is still popular. Fakhruddin Ahmed, head of the interim government installed by the army, has promised a "beautiful Bangladesh" without militancy, intolerance or Islamic extremism. Sadly, this seems a pipe-dream.

Foreign diplomats in Dhaka still give his administration the benefit of the doubt. Mr Fakhruddin has promised a parliamentary election by the end of 2008. But the good intentions of his overstretched interim government matter less than a power struggle in the army. The term of the army chief, General Moeen U Ahmed, expires in June 2008. His main adversary, and probable successor, General Masud Uddin Chowdhury, is widely seen as the driving force behind the state of emergency imposed on January 11th.

With troops on the streets for months, and no end to their deployment in sight, frustration among army officers has been mounting. Senior ones know that a return to civilian politics would probably cost them their jobs. Nor are they likely to back General Moeen, whose time is running out. Rumours of a counter-coup led by General Masud surfaced on March 26th, Bangladesh's independence day. They proved unfounded. But events since have not dispelled the impression of disunity within the armed forces.

The legal cover for the administration the generals are backing is wearing thin. The initial 120 days of emergency rule allowed under the battered constitution expire on May 10th. But the state of emergency can be extended, and there seem few other options. The big parties are in shambles. Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel-prize-winning microcredit pioneer, seen as a potential saviour earlier this year when he announced plans to enter politics and launched a new party, has walked off the pitch. Already there is talk in Dhaka that the army might form its own civilian party—or not bother with such niceties and declare outright martial law.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Nicholas Schmidle: The Army Comes to the Rescue

Bangladesh's 2007 election season has featured an unexpected—and unlikely—pair of stars: the army and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Mohammad Yunus. In February, Yunus, the microcredit guru and acclaimed "banker to the poor," announced that he was entering the political fray by promising to "build Bangladesh as we dreamt." And the army, which took control of the country 11 days before the parliamentary elections originally scheduled for Jan. 22, has embarked on a merciless anti-corruption campaign. It has arrested thousands of allegedly crooked politicians and sent the rest into hiding. To arrange an interview in Dhaka these days can be trying; dodging arrest, many politicians have changed phone numbers and no longer sleep at home. The only politico putting himself about is Yunus.

Kamal Hossain, like millions of others around the country, is ecstatic. A well-dressed man in his early 70s, with a deep, throaty voice, Hossain sounded triumphant and giddy during our recent meeting. "People are shocked, because suddenly the law has returned to Bangladesh," he said. He thinks that if Yunus can leverage his public stature and stay committed to clean, principled politics, he could "fuel a real democratic movement." Thirty-five years ago, Hossain played a critical role in the movement to form Bangladesh, acting first as legal adviser to "father of the nation" Sheik Mujibur Rahman and later writing the 1972 constitution. But 30 years later, he found his nation's prospects growing grim. Yunus' candidacy, Hossain says, is proof that, "God exists for Bangladesh."

But is serious change truly under way? And can the army take credit?

Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country of roughly 145 million people whose army has a history of meddling in politics. In 1975, a handful of army officers assassinated Mujib, as Mujibur Rahman was affectionately known, and his family. That touched off a rapid series of coups and countercoups. Gen. Ziaur Rahman, who ruled from 1975 through 1981, survived 22 coup attempts before finally being assassinated. Five separate military regimes ruled from the time of Mujib's murder until December 1990, when massive street demonstrations forced Gen. Mohammad Ershad, who had seized power in a 1982 coup, to step down and hand power to a civilian government.

During the three elections since 1991, the army remained in its barracks. Many considered Bangladesh a model for other burgeoning Muslim democracies. Its parliamentary system placed real power in the hands of an elected prime minister, who appoints a president whose powers are limited. The United States Institute of Peace published a report in May 2005 that compared Bangladesh to Turkey and added that it "exemplifies the coexistence of Islam and democracy." But regular elections and a functioning democracy are not the same. During this period of civilian rule, the heads of the two main political parties, Sheik Hasina of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party, fought out one of the world's nastiest personal rivalries. They competed with each other in everything, including the amount of money they could plunder from the state. Transparency International, the corruption watchdog, ranked Bangladesh as the most corrupt nation in the world five out of the last six years. Meanwhile, the World Bank estimates that the average person makes $470 a year.

Throughout the 1990s and the first seven years of this decade, the army sat back and watched. It had secured a sweet peacekeeping mandate with the United Nations, whereby its soldiers serve one-year postings in places like the Congo, Sierra Leone, and East Timor. In return, the annual salaries of the soldiers increased five- or six-fold. The army didn't want to see their lucrative agreement with the Unites Nations jeopardized as a result of any reckless adventurism, i.e., a coup. But growing tensions and violence throughout the country in late 2006 pushed the generals' patience to the limit.

The trouble started in October 2006, when the outgoing BNP government handed power to a caretaker administration full of BNP sympathizers. In protest, the AL orchestrated demonstrations, strikes, and blockades, during which 40 people died and hundreds were injured. As the elections neared, the frequency and intensity of the street battles intensified. On Jan. 3, the AL announced that it was boycotting the polls. This prompted the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, two election-monitoring organizations, to cancel their programs, since polls without one of the two major parties could never be considered free or fair. As street violence increased, the United Nations hinted to the army that its inability to keep peace in Bangladesh was threatening its peacekeeping mandate overseas.

I arrived on Jan. 13, two days after President Iajuddin Ahmed declared the state of emergency. No one really knew what to think. Had the army staged a coup? Was martial law coming next? On my first night in Dhaka, I met a young couple at an upscale cafe near the center of town. They hadn't left their house for the previous two weeks, guarding against the off-chance that they would be caught someplace where protesters might be chucking bricks at the police. They were thrilled about the state of emergency. The roads were safe, and they could get their cappuccinos again. Already, rumors were circulating about Yunus taking a political role, perhaps as president or chief adviser to the caretaker government. When I asked the cappuccino couple what they thought, the woman nodded her head approvingly and said, "This country could use some new people." By the time I left a month later, Yunus had officially announced the formation of his party, Nagorik Shakti, or Citizen's Power. He talked about saving the country and rescuing the poor. I knew that the cafe crowd and the elite loved him, but what about the poor?


Mohammad Abdul. Click image to expand."I spilled blood for this country because I believed that the poor would live freely, but we are still being harassed," said Mohammad Abdul Mohammad Abdul is a 77-year-old slum dweller with a long white beard, stained at the tips like the mustache of a two-pack-a-day-smoker. On the day we met, he wore a green, crocheted prayer cap and a button on his left breast pocket to commemorate his service as a freedom fighter in the 1971 war, when Bangladesh, formerly known as East Pakistan, seceded from Pakistan and fought a gruesome nine-month war that left roughly 3 million people dead. He stood in front of his home—a tin shack suspended by a few knobby-kneed bamboo poles above stagnant water, rotting celery stalks, and shimmering pieces of plastic chip bags—and explained that he was about to be evicted.

As part of the its anti-corruption and anti-lawlessness campaign, the army was working in conjunction with police units and detachments of the elite anti-crime force known as Rapid Action Battalion to demolish numerous settlements that were deemed to be illegally encroaching on government property. Three days before my visit, RAB was in the Karwan Bazar slum to give Abdul a three-day notice to quit. "I spilled blood for this country because I believed that the poor would live freely, but we are still being harassed," he told me, exposing a mouthful of teeth the size of dominoes, the result of an aggressively receding gum line.

I expected him to continue berating the joint forces for their plans to demolish his home. But in fact, he was sanguine. He granted that he had no place to go and would probably wind up "roaming the streets," but he didn't blame the army. They are doing the right thing, he said. "These crooks must be arrested."

It wasn't until I brought up Yunus that he became animated. When I asked Abdul if he would consider supporting Yunus in the next election, he sucked on his huge choppers and pretended to swat at invisible flies. Microcredit is one thing, he explained, but running for prime minister is quite another. "Yunus was fine before winning the peace prize," he said. He stuck to what he knew best. "But he doesn't know what he is talking about when it comes to politics. He is just talking."


Refugees or Rebels?

Nurul is a Rohingya, an outcast community of Muslims from Rakhine state in western Burma (officially known as Myanmar). Burma's military government considers Rohingyas to be migrants from Bangladesh, since they moved to Burma only in the last few centuries, and it refuses to grant them citizenship rights. "They are treated like dogs," an official from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees told me. Under "nationality and religion," their national ID cards read "Bengali Muslims." The junta disparages Rohingyan religious and cultural traditions at every opportunity. Most mosques stand in disrepair. Those in passing condition are turned into police and fire stations. Rohingyas who wish to marry must obtain official permission and pay a whopping tax. If the Burmese authorities find out that a couple has evaded payment, the groom is sent off to a labor camp for several years until he works off his "debt."

Médecins Sans Frontières estimates that between 30 percent to 40 percent of Rohingyan children in the Teknaf camp have respiratory infections. Click image to expand.

30 to 40 percent of Rohingyan children in the Teknaf camp are estimated to have respiratory infections
In 1992, 250,000 Rohingya refugees crossed into Bangladesh after rumors circulated that the Burmese army was torching Rohingya villages. UNHCR immediately established 22 camps from Cox's Bazar, a resort city that boasts the longest natural beach—at 75 miles—in the world, to Teknaf, the southernmost city on the Bangladeshi mainland and a renowned hub of smuggling activity. Since then, most of the refugees have returned to Burma, and only two official UNHCR camps remain, housing 26,000 people. But there is also an unofficial camp just north of Teknaf that is home to some 10,000 refugees—commonly referred to as the "makeshift camp." Opportunities for work are scant; Nurul pulls a rickshaw a few days a week and fills the rest of his time as a fisherman. Neither pays more than a dollar a day. Burma's government asserts that rebel fighters belonging to the Rohingya Solidarity Organization operate and recruit there. Others allege that international jihadist outfits poach from the ranks of desperate refugees.

I rented a microbus and went to Teknaf to see the makeshift camp. The road from Cox's Bazar to Teknaf crosses through one of the most conservative areas in Bangladesh. Madrassas, or Islamic seminaries, appeared every few miles on either side of the road. The few women on the streets wore black burqas that cloaked their faces. From a distance, it was difficult to tell which direction they were heading. Lush hills, like giant green gumdrops, formed the landscape to the west. The unimaginably wide Naf River, the natural barrier between Burma and Bangladesh, formed the other. I was marveling at the natural beauty when we arrived at the camp.

A boy cries and leans on his mother while she separates rice in front of their hut in Teknaf. Click image to expand.


A boy cries and leans on his mother while she separates rice in front of their hut in Teknaf



At first glance, the makeshift camp looked like a burlap city, hut after hut made of floppy brown material. But it wasn't burlap or canvas, it was tarps and patches of plastic garbage bags caked with dust. Along the roadside, sections of homemade bamboo lattice pretended to act as a fence. Yet the refugees spilled across the street. Naked children with dripping noses and medicine-ball bellies chased one another back and forth through traffic. Nurul sent someone from the hut he shared with his teenage wife and another couple to bring tea, while his 2-year-old son stood by his side. The boy was naked and snot dripped onto his lower lip. (Doctors Without Borders, which runs a clinic across the street, estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent of the kids have respiratory infections.) He played with his penis the entire time.

The Rohingya camps are filled with disease. More debatable is whether criminals infest the camps. In one of the UNHCR camps, a Bangladeshi security officer explained that almost every male was involved in muggings and thievery, if not worse crimes. I couldn't gauge the veracity of such claims. On the one hand, no one would know better than the man in charge of security for the camp; on the other, Bangladeshi officials exaggerate the Rohingyas criminal activities in order to expedite their repatriation to Burma. The government accuses them of being terrorists. The Dhaka-based Daily Star reported in August 2006 that, "Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh"—the group responsible for detonating 500 bombs simultaneously throughout Bangladesh in August 2005—"emerged with its militant activities by sending trained Muslim Rohingya rebels to Afghanistan and Kashmir war fronts in the 1980s." When I asked Nurul whether he had witnessed recruitment in the camp, he first denied hearing about any such things. Then he spoke up: "Last year, 15 people suddenly disappeared and went off to get military training in the hills. When they came back, we asked them where they had gone. They said, 'We went for the greater benefit of the Rohingya people.' " Nurul said he didn't know the name of the group that offered the training, but he assumed it was RSO. The fresh recruits told Nurul that they were "preparing to fight for the liberation of Myanmar."

Rohingyan children from Burma in the Teknaf camp. Click image to expand.Rohingyan children from Burma in the Teknaf camp
Until then, the Rohingyas will keep squatting in their squalid camps, grateful for every day they aren't arrested, evicted, or forcibly repatriated. The UNHCR camps aren't accepting new refugees, and the Rohingyas believe that the Bangladeshi government is looking for any excuse to deport them. For a long time, they've had no place to call home. Now, with a state of emergency declared in Bangladesh and the army being given more leeway to chase criminals and "cleanse society of unwanted elements," the Rohingyas fear a more aggressive campaign against them may be in the offing.

If people like Nurul returned to Burma, the military would kill them before long. The Burmese army keeps track of the Rohingyas in Rakhine state by conducting unannounced head counts. Those who are absent are considered rebels. According to Nurul, one of the army's preferred methods for punishing traitors is to bind them to a pole under a low tin roof in the sun and then leave them to bake to death. Nurul came to Bangladesh for the first time nearly 10 years ago, holding in his hand a 20-day work token for which he had paid a Bangladeshi border guard a few hundred taka—or around $5. (The Burmese border guards make no effort to keep the Rohingyas from leaving.) When Nurul returned to the border area after his token expired, a fellow Rohingya warned him that roll call had been done. He was listed as missing. He immediately turned around and has been in Bangladesh ever since.

I put a question to Nurul and the other people who had joined us in the hut: Could you ever return to Burma under the current government?

An old man who had recently arrived in Bangladesh spoke up. He said he was cheering for leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate whom the military junta has kept under house arrest since 1989, and desperately wanted to see democracy in his home country. Only then could he consider returning. But being a Rohingya has made him skeptical of all governments. "It doesn't matter who is in power," he said, "If I see cops in the road, I have to run and hide in the forest."

Late in the afternoon, I said goodbye to Nurul. His son gave me a high-five with his penis-twiddling hand. Just outside the hut, another toddler sent an arching stream of urine into a pool of stagnant water, on the other side of which a woman was washing her hair. Teenage girls carried bundles of sticks on their heads, and the glow of the setting sun filled the alleys of the camp. In a few hours, it would be dark, and the army would come looking for criminals. With luck, Nurul would once again tiptoe out of his house to go sleep in the muck along the side of the Naf River.


Among the Missionaries


Worshippers during juma, or Friday, prayers at the Bishwa Ijetma. Click image to expand.Worshippers during juma, or Friday prayers at the Bishwa Ijetma
The Bishwa Ijtema is no place for homophobes. Of the 3 million Muslims who attended the gathering in early February, about 10 were women. Guys walked the grounds decked out in a variety of man-dresses—the Bangladeshis in their traditional, plaid man-skirts; the Arabs in ankle-length tunics; and the Pakistanis in slightly shorter tunics, paired with the sort of baggy trousers that would make MC Hammer envious. I've worn each outfit and can confidently say that none of the 3 million was wearing underwear. Men strolled hand-in-hand while others sat drinking tea, sometimes caressing one another's head, arm, or earlobe. Still, this is Asia, where such behavior is perfectly acceptable for heterosexual men.

The event included three days of prayers, lectures, and ruminations on how to be a good—and peaceful—Muslim and took place about an hour north of Dhaka, the capital. I showed up on Friday, the first day, around noon. The call for juma prayers, the biggest congregational prayer of the week (like church on Sunday morning) had just sounded—"Allahu Akbar!"—and worshippers promptly unrolled prayer rugs in the middle of the street. When one worshipper gestured as though he were going to place his rug on the hood of our car, I advised the driver to park, marooning us in the middle of the road. I opened the passenger-side door enough to squeeze out before the faithful closed in around us. Latecomers searched frantically for a space to pray, while rugless attendees swarmed around a man selling straw mats. When he sold out, the truly rugless tore black plastic garbage bags into pieces and laid them on the concrete.

The ijtema, or gathering, was hosted by Tablighi Jamaat, a massive organization of Muslim missionaries that espouses a strict, yet nonpolitical, interpretation of Islam. Tablighis, as the group's followers are known, shun bristle toothbrushes in order to clean their teeth with miswak, an aromatic stick used by the Prophet Mohammed. They also drink every glass of water in three sips, the same way the prophet did. They are fundamentalists in every sense of the word. But they are mostly harmless. "This thing is really like an emotional sedative," said Abdul Badi, a Caucasian man with a wiry beard and a thick street accent marked by slow, measured enunciations. Badi describes himself as an "Islamic contemporary artist," fusing oil paintings with Islamic motifs. He is also the former imam of the MCI-Cedar Junction supermax prison in Walpole, Mass. He made the pilgrimage from his hometown of Boston. "This is truly a peace movement within Islam," he said, stressing the second syllable of Is-LAM. Badi and other dedicated tablighis commit at least 40 days a year to traveling and preaching Islam. Christiane Amanpour described Tablighi Jamaat as "secretive" and hinted at its links to terrorist groups in a recently broadcast CNN special, The War Within. "People are scared," she added, referring to the group's growing influence.

Amanpour missed the mark. Tablighi Jamaat doesn't have a Web site or a publishing house (as several earnest militant outfits do), and they didn't want to meet with Amanpour. Does that make them secretive? Not when anyone can walk in and listen to their sermons. Including me. Do terrorists attend? With 3 million people there, it's hard to rule out the possibility. "There is so much ignorance about Islam," said "Brother" Eisa (which means "Jesus" in Arabic), an African-American and another Boston native. Eisa explained that he came for the message of peace, whatever reasons a few others might have. "We are only accountable for the message of our elders."

I went to the ijtema in part to find out just what the elders had to say. And, all in all, their message is quite tame. Here's a sampling: The world's problems result from a lack of religion, not an excess; Allah's power transcends the physical and conceptual limits of this world; and "when a good action pleases you and a bad action displeases you, then you are a true believer." Pretty simple. Yet, contrary to what Eisa said, what sets Tablighi Jamaat apart is not so much its message but its method. Tablighis are missionaries who see converting a non-Muslim to Islam as a ticket to paradise. Their eyes glowed at the sight of a blond-haired, blue-eyed American wandering around alone.

Most of the 160-acre campground consisted of thousands of bamboo shafts stuck into the ground, each one holding up part of a long piece of canvas, draped like Gulliver-sized bands of ribbon overhead. A few tin-sided barns posted signs welcoming foreigners.

A rug-seller relishes the business opportunity of a lifetime. Click image to expand.A rug-seller relishes the business opportunity of a lifetime
The first to invite me into their quarters was a group of tall men with bulgy turbans from North Waziristan, one of the tribal areas in Pakistan where the Taliban have taken over. We drank two rounds of milky tea and discussed, in Urdu, the Taliban and the changes they've brought to North Waziristan. "The law and order is much better," one said. "But it's very dangerous for someone like you." After a few minutes, the leader was fetched. This must be King Missionary, I thought, the moment he arrived. As he circled his quarry, he cracked his knuckles and rolled his neck like a boxer in warm-up before he sat and faced me. He had no sooner begun imploring me to "come to Allah" when an exterminator entered the barn, wielding what looked like a military-grade leaf-blower. The bug man sprayed a lethal poison—only for mosquitoes, he assured us—that shrouded our circle in a cloud of toxic fumes. Taking advantage of the smokescreen, I ducked away.

After stumbling out of the Pakistani tent, coughing and holding my shirt over my mouth, a teenage Bangladeshi boy stopped me and flashed a creepy smile. He tenderly rubbed my chin and repeated, in a breathy voice, "Oh, oh, Allah." After this, I resolved to find the American tent, where I might have fewer problems with cultural nuances.

There I met Abdul Badi, the artist from Boston. Badi, who converted to Islam "back in the '60s," traveled with his teenage son. Both father and son wore full beards and shaved their upper lips in the tradition of the Prophet Mohammed. They acted and sounded, well, American. Undoubtedly, they had pitched the nicest tent on the premises. "Yup," Badi said while slowly nodding and admiring the blue-and-white, eight-man model. "We brought the Coleman," decisively accenting the first syllable of KOHL-man to emphasize that it was a cool thing. As we talked, a bottle of perfume was passed around, which the tablighis dabbed on their neck and wrists. Sensing my apprehension, Badi suggested: "Smell it first. It isn't for everyone." Grateful for his intercession, I passed the bottle to my left.

Later, I asked Badi what compelled his conversion to Islam and decision to join Tablighi Jamaat. During the 1960s, he said with a cocksure grin, "I was a faithful worshipper of earthly beauty. But I reached a plateau of consciousness." He searched for some spiritual calling. Eventually he found it in a stethoscope. "People say if you listen to your heartbeat, it makes the sound, 'LOVE, dove,' 'LOVE, dove.' One day, I took a stethoscope and placed it on my heart. You know what it said? 'AL-lah, AL-lah.' You don't need to formally convert if you can hear the sound of your own heart."

When the evening's last sermon ended at around 10, I joined Badi, Eisa, and another African-American—a real-life boxing coach from New York City—for dinner. We sat on the ground and plunged our hands into mounds of rice, meat, and salad. The coach asked if I was a new convert. When I replied that I was just a journalist, he pushed out his lips, as if he were trying to hold a pencil in place with his upper lip. "But I can tell your heart is getting softer and softer," he said in a gravelly voice while holding out his upturned palm and opening and closing it as if he were kneading dough. Meanwhile, Eisa lectured on how I couldn't fully understand Islam without becoming a Muslim. When he noticed me trying to break the conversation by looking around, he snapped: "Listen! I am not talking to hear myself. If you are going to quote me in your article, you better be listening to everything that I say." I smiled nervously, somewhat embarrassed, and grabbed another fistful of rice.

The rest of dinner continued with various American Muslims working their own missionary angle. Between the coach kneading, Eisa demanding my attention, and the spicy food, my face broke out in a heavy sweat. Just in the nick of time, my friend called to say that he was heading back to Dhaka for the night. I had an excuse, and I stood up to leave. Abdul Badi got up to walk me to the gate. "This must be an overwhelming experience for you," he said along the way. "I think you need a full-on Arabian experience," Badi added, alluding to Mecca, where only Muslims are allowed.

I saw what he was getting at. And with one last nervous smile, I bade him farewell and stepped out into the night.


Who'd Be an Untouchable?

Gosaipur's main attraction is a soccer-goal-sized temple dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu god of creation and destruction. Apparently, Shiva liked to get stoned, and so, to fully show his veneration, Khokan smoked a lot of pot. He pulled a hash-packed chillum, a pipe traditionally used by Hindu mystics to smoke hashish, from his pocket and suggested we light up. I declined as diplomatically as possible, not wanting him to think my refusal reflected bias against sharing a pipe with an untouchable. "It's only 9 in the morning," I said. "And I still have a day's worth of meetings to attend." Picturing an afternoon of the munchies with the eel heads was enough to make anyone decline the invitation.

After saying farewell to Khokan and leaving Gosaipur, I learned that Muslims inhabit the neighboring village. Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country, but about 10 percent to 12 percent of the population of around 145 million is Hindu. Bangladeshis boast that their vibrant, liberal culture is a product of Hindus and Muslims living side by side for centuries. Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali poet, artist, and novelist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 and is hailed as Bangladesh's Shakespeare, was a Hindu. Two of Tagore's poems would later be adopted as national anthems by both India and Bangladesh.

Still, there are others who think that the rise of Islamist groups in Bangladesh poses a threat to the Hindu minority, especially the outcast Mushaheris. "Jamaat-i-Islami has taken advantage of their weaknesses," said Shah Mobin Jinnah, director of the Community Development Association, an NGO based in Dinajpur. Jinnah believes that the Islamists are using the Mushaheris' illiteracy and destitute poverty to encourage conversions. Can you blame them? I asked Jinnah. Wouldn't you consider converting to another religion if the one you belonged to classified you as untouchable? It's been done before. On Aug. 14, 1956, B.R. Ambedkar, a primary author of India's constitution and a Dalit by birth, converted himself—and 380,000 other untouchables—to Buddhism.

After my meeting with Jinnah, I headed to another Mushaheri village about 30 miles outside Dinajpur. The company that normally runs buses between the main road and the village had, for unknown reasons, scrapped their service for the day, so we rented a "van." I'm unsure how a bicycle pulling a flatbed with two wheels and a lantern dangling underneath was ever dubbed a van, but a friend and I loaded onto the back of it, held the sides so as not to slide off, and went bumping along. After a chilly, 45-minute bike ride on a two-lane road that meandered through rice paddies, we arrived in the second village, Subarna Khuli, or "golden field," at dusk. Three kids played catch with a ball of tape. Across the village, one family performed mundan, a Hindu ritual in which the male child's first haircut involves shaving the boy's head. Fellow villagers gathered to celebrate, and the family distributed handfuls of rice wrapped in banana leaves. The village had toilets and a schoolhouse. A few people even had jobs.

A short, thin man named Donasher introduced himself as a rice farmer. He had just finished a day's work, standing knee-deep in grimy water planting rice. A frequent and violent cough sounded like someone was beating him on the back with a 2-by-4. Soon enough, Donasher said, the rice season would end and he'd have no work. "How do you make your earnings last through the year?" I asked. "We can't," he said. During other "off seasons" he hunted and ate mice. But lately, Donasher hasn't needed to go out hunting. About two years ago, village life improved dramatically when everyone converted—to Christianity.

Donasher recalled how two teams of missionaries, one from the Bangladesh Lutheran Church and another from Thali Ta Khumi Church, entered Subarna Khuli and told the village elders: "We will look after you." They immediately built a church. They followed that with a school, where the children receive one meal a day. "They have given us winter clothes, and in workless times, they have given us money," Donasher said. Before long, responding to the churches' persistent requests, government engineers installed a tube well to pump safe drinking water. "They have helped us both spiritually and economically," he said.

I thought back on what Shah Mobin Jinnah had told me earlier in the day. And he was right: The Mushaheris are a vulnerable lot. Their own religion doesn't seem to want them, so why should they feel compelled to stay Hindu forever? More than that, however, the story of Subarna Khuli illustrates how religious conversions take place. There are plenty of stories about domineering missionaries using force or manipulative tactics to convert. But often, it is just a matter of satisfying people's basic needs. Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist—whichever missionaries can improve the lives of people like Donasher will ultimately win their allegiance.

Nevertheless, neither church has delivered electricity to Subarna Khuli yet. An hour after we arrived, the sky fell pitch black, and Donasher ran off to get a bottle of molasses moonshine. Four of us sat on the floor of his single-room home and passed around the bottle, using the light of my cell phone to find one another's hand. I took one gulp that immediately sent a burning sensation down to my toes. After another swig, we boarded the van and, holding tight, meandered back through the rice paddies.

Adibashi Loko Utsab in Rajshahi

Adibashi Loko Utsab in Rajshahi
Highlighting cultural diversity and harmony

Indigenous cultural diversity in Bangladesh was celebrated with music, dance, photo exhibition and discussion at the Adibashi Loko Utsab held recently in Rajshahi. The aim was to encourage harmony by incorporating their language and ethnic identity.

The three-day event, jointly organised by Jatiyo Adibashi Parishad and Ashtha, was held at Bhubon Mohon Park, Rajshahi with the slogan 'Amader bhasha o porichoye jago Bangladesh'. Renowned litterateur Hassan Azizul Haque inaugurated the festival while advocate Sultana Kamal attended as chief guest. Anil Marandi of Jatiyo Adibashi Parishad presided over the programme.

Participants from different ethnic groups -- Santal, Oraon, Munda, Mahali, Mandi, Rajbangshi, Rajoar, Bhuimali -- from Dinajpur, Naogaon, Natore, Chapainawabganj, Rajshahi, Bogra and Gazipur, and representatives of civil society and mass media took part in the celebration and showed support for the solidarity. Bengalis, the majority, also joined the utsab. "We have to embrace diversity and come together as one" -- was the theme of the festival.

According to Rabindranath Soren, general secretary of Jatiyo Adibashi Parishad, the festival was a point of convergence to share their strong, proud and lasting culture with the wider community. "The festival will contribute to enhance cultural self-expression and interaction. Hopefully it will also bridge the cultural gap between people of different ethnic identities in the country," he said. The festival further called for constitutional recognition of their ethnic identities.

Performers at the festival represented both traditional and modern aspects of indigenous cultures. Traditional dong dance and music, karam dance, dasai dance and jhumur (also called jhumer) dance performance along with modern songs and theatrical performance were attempts to identify and showcase the heritage as well as the significant shift that has been going on within indigenous cultures.

Five-discussion sessions titled 'Whose Language? Whose Culture?? Whose State???' 'Globalisation vs Freedom', 'Indigenous Peoples' Art, Literature and National Conscience', 'Contribution of Indigenous people in the Liberation War' and 'Water-Forest-Land Rights of the Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh' were held during the festival. Pavel Partha, A K M Masud Ali, Sharmeen Murshid, Ayub Hossain and Professor Saidur Rahman Khan presented the keynote papers respectively.

Mrittika, a magazine on issues regarding indigenous communities arranged a photo exhibition titled Bolshal Bringni Mandirang (Mandis of sal forest) highlighting the culture, lifestyle and struggles of Mandis in Madhupur, Tangail.

The festival ended with a colourful rally.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Three News to consider Bangladesh at crossroads again

BBC: Bangladesh ex-PM vows to go home
[Please see online BBC interviewing Sheikh Hasina--]

The former Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, has said that she is determined to return home despite warnings that she will be prevented.

She told the BBC that "nothing would stop" her from returning to Bangladesh to participate in elections and defend herself against murder charges.

The Home Ministry said earlier that her "provocative and inflammatory speeches" might create civil unrest.

Officials have been told to stop her entering the country.

Exile deal

"My duty is to the people of my country and I owe it to them to fight the election and defend myself against fabricated criminal charges," Sheikh Hasina told the BBC Bengali service.

She said that she would be arriving in London on Thursday with a view to travelling to Dhaka on 23 April.

The government says that Sheikh Hasina, who is on holiday in the US, was responsible for recent street protests that led to a state of emergency.

Another former PM, Khaleda Zia, has reportedly agreed an exile deal.

In a statement, the Home Ministry blamed Sheikh Hasina for issuing "inflammatory statements" against the military-backed caretaker administration and law enforcement forces.

The ministry said her return might create "further confusion and hatred" among the public.

"In the recent past, the civil discipline, security and economy were at stake due to irresponsible and non-stop political agitation and activities led by her party, the Awami League, and other political parties," the statement said.

"And due to this, a state of emergency has to be declared."

The statement said there was "apprehension" that she might jeopardise law and order, and create political instability, endangering public safety and economic life.

"For public safety, the government has issued a special security alert about Sheikh Hasina's return to the country. This arrangement is temporary."

The authorities have placed the police, immigration, air, land and port authorities on alert following their decision.

Sheikh Hasina has been accused of murder and extortion by the military-backed caretaker government.

'Clear conscience'

She has insisted that it has always been her intention to return home to defend herself against what she described earlier this week as "false and fake cases".

Sheikh Hasina said on Tuesday that she did not fear detention or physical harm.

"They can do whatever they like, but I know my conscience is clear, I haven't done anything wrong, and I haven't committed any crimes," she said.

"They filed cases and more cases maybe just to punish me."

It was also reported on Tuesday that another former Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia, had agreed to go into exile in Saudi Arabia with her family.

"She will be leaving the country for Saudi Arabia in a couple of days. Initially she will be leaving with a one-month visa to perform Umrah [a minor pilgrimage to Mecca] and her permanent residence there will be finalised upon reaching the kingdom of Saudi Arabia," the Daily Star reported, citing a senior government source.

"Everything has been finalised... now only the formalities, including getting a visa, remain to be completed," it said.



"... SMS received from an army major..."

The government through its Press Information Department and other
agencies has instructed all newspapers not to carry any comment of
Sheikh Hasina. An SMS received from an army major said: "You are
requested not to telecast/print any views/comments of Sheikh Hasina
from today till further order." It may be mentioned that Hasina's
comment on the government's ban on her return was aired by BBC Bangla
Service which has been heard by the radio's audiences in Bangladesh.


The Daily Star: PRESS NOTE

From Press Information Dept, People's Republic(?) of Bangladesh

Some reliable sources have informed the government that Awami League President Sheikh Hasina, now on a personal visit to the United States, might return to the country on April 23, 2007. It should be mentioned here that in the recent past, the law and order had been disrupted while national security and the economic climate had been jeopardized in a period of anarchy brought on by non-stop and irresponsible agitation and disorderly acts of Awami League and other political parties under her leadership. Inevitably, it all led to declaration of the state of emergency.

Besides, she has made provocative and malicious statements against the present caretaker government and law enforcement agencies at different meetings and in national and international media while staying overseas.

Under the circumstances, if Sheikh Hasina returns, she might seek to make provocative remarks like she did before, and create further hatred and confusion among the people. This might deteriorate the country's law and order, disturb the prevailing stability and threaten public safety and economy. Also to be noted, Sheikh Hasina herself is concerned about her security and has pleaded with the government through her party for special security arrangements. For the above-mentioned reasons, the government has decided to take some cautionary steps regarding her return. However, those measures are temporary.

Immigration at air and land ports, different airlines and the other authorities concerned have been informed to that end. The foreign, civil aviation and tourism ministries, civil aviation authority and the inspector general of police too have been requested to take necessary step.