How Bangladesh’s generals get away with it
IN TERMS of foreign press coverage per head of population, probably no country in the world gets as raw a deal as Bangladesh. It has some 150m people. Yet if it features in the international media it tends to be either as the scene of an appalling natural disaster—flood or cyclone—or as the crucible for one of the great experiments in microcredit.
Its politics tend to be ignored. This is surprising, since it is a bastion of moderate Islam, which, like other moderate Muslim countries, such as Pakistan and Indonesia, has been prey to an extremist fringe.
India accuses it of harbouring groups plotting secession in its north-eastern states and, at times, of training terrorists who mount attacks elsewhere in India.
AFPPrisoners are transported to jail in Dhaka
Outside the subcontinent, however, few pay much attention. This is just as well for the “interim” administration, which took power in January 2007 with the backing of the army. The state of emergency it imposed then is still in force. This has allowed for some outrageous abuses.
According to Odhikar, a Bangladeshi human-rights group, 68 people died in extrajudicial killings (often called “crossfire”) in the first half of this year. Torture is endemic. The government also quietly adopted a new counter-terrorism ordinance last month, without debate. Human Rights Watch, a research and lobbying group, says it violates fundamental freedoms.
Last month, after the breakdown of talks between the government and the political parties on the election promised for December, about 28,000 political activists were detained. The country’s 68 prisons are designed to hold 27,368 people, but they were crammed with 87,579 prisoners in late June, according to the government. Some convicted prisoners are being freed prematurely to make room for these unconnected—and uncharged—political detainees.
There two main reasons why all this is so widely overlooked. The first is that when the army intervened in January 2007, most Bangladeshis were relieved (as were aid donors). The two main political parties—the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League—seemed incapable of managing an orderly transfer of power. So the voices that might draw attention to the government’s abuses have been muted.
Secondly, the previous, BNP-led, government did not like the foreign press, and made it very hard for journalists to visit. It succeeded in removing Bangladesh from the international news agenda.
A modest attempt to draw attention to Bangladesh’s predicament was staged on June 27th in the unlikely setting of the House of Lords in London. In the Moses Room, dwarfed by the huge painting of the Old Testament prophet bringing God’s laws down from the top of the mountain, Lord Avebury, a British peer, chaired a seminar on “political dialogue and the way forward to elections” in Bangladesh.
Since Britain is both the former colonial power and has around 250,000 citizens of Bangladeshi origin, it is not surprising that its parliamentarians should take an interest in the country. Indeed, it is perhaps more surprising that the seminar was sparsely attended.
One speaker, Saber Hossain Chowdhury, an Awami League leader, professed to see light at the end of the tunnel. The League is about to re-enter talks with the government. There seems a good chance that local and parliamentary elections will proceed.
It is hard, however, to see how they can be free or fair, while emergency rule in still in place. The seminar adopted a unanimous resolution calling for an immediate end to the state of emergency.
Naturally, this was not widely reported.