Frustration in Bangladesh Mounts Over Military-Backed Government

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The United States often advises Bangladesh to clean up its public corruption if it hopes to attract more foreign investment and stabilize its shaky economy. Recently, Bangladesh has been doing just that—with a vengeance.

The country’s government has arrested more than 200 public officials since spring, and its new ambassador in Washington, M. Humayun Kabir, says speedy trials are well under way. Among those detained on corruption charges are two former prime ministers: Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Sheikh Hasina Wazed of the Awami League.

Bangladeshi officials also locked up Sigma Huda, the United Nations special rapporteur for human trafficking, on extortion charges in July. Although some in the United States and Bangladesh contend the charges against Huda were trumped up, she was recently convicted and sentenced to three years in prison in her native Bangladesh.

In addition, authorities in Bangladesh have begun talks with political leaders to overhaul the country’s election laws. Elections were canceled earlier this year following major protests over vote-rigging allegations, but the current caretaker government, backed by the country’s military, has promised new elections before the end of 2008.

In the meantime, political parties in Bangladesh have been asked to dissolve and reconstitute their leaderships, as well change their operations, open their finances to independent auditors, and adopt new codes of conduct.

In a recent interview at the Embassy of Bangladesh, Kabir said that the massive corruption sweep has the support among most in Bangladesh, although discontent has been simmering in recent months as frustration mounts over the lack of political structure and increasing costs of living.

In fact, late this summer, the country’s caretaker government saw the widespread popular support it initially enjoyed slowly erode, with student demonstrations in Dhaka turning violent and morphing into national calls for the end of emergency rule—which resulted in the government imposing several curfews to quell the rioting.

Kabir is urging his fellow countrymen to be patient. “The intention of the government is to cleanse the process,” he insisted. “All these institutional arrangements are geared to strengthening democracy because democracy is not only about elections, but making government to account. We are trying to do that.”

He added: “We want to create enough institutional backup so that the future governments can be more accountable and more responsible and the people can solve their problems.”

Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorest and mostly densely populated countries. But it is also one of the few democracies in the Muslim world, and as such, the ambassador argues that Bangladesh should be praised, not condemned, as it tries to rid itself of the cancer of corruption.

He noted that anti-corruption and public service commissions have been reconstituted, and other structural reforms are under way in Bangladesh. “This is a problem for many countries,” Kabir said. “Some segments of the government are worse than others; we are trying to cleanse it.”

He also said that the recent arrests involve “high-profile, socially upscale kinds of people who are alleged to be involved in different kinds of corruption and illegal activity,” sending the message that social status provides no insulation from scrutiny.

Kabir rejected the assertion by critics that the profiteering cases against the accused are flimsy. “Everything is done as per the law of the land and in an open and transparent manner,” he said. “A court will decide, so we cannot make any judgment.”

He also pointed out that supporters of those who were jailed have generally been unable to rally the public to their cause. “When someone is morally weak, they cannot defend themselves and their supporters lose the courage to stand up,” Kabir charged.

Likewise, he defended the prosecution of Sigma Huda—wife of Nazmul Huda, who was communications minister in the government under Nationalist Party leader Khaleda Zia and who was also convicted in the anti-graft court and sentenced to three years.

“Her husband’s ministry was found to be one of the most corrupt ministries in the government, and as the allegation goes, she was involved in bribery and other things,” the ambassador said. “The court has examined all documents in an open and transparent manner. She had her lawyers, the other side had their lawyers, they argued the case in court, and she was convicted.”

But some observers have questioned the fairness of the trial. The Coalition Against Trafficking of Women issued this statement: “The sentence is yet another travesty of justice imposed by the current military-backed government who continues to arrest and imprison thousands of people since taking control in January 2007.”

The head of the U.N. Human Rights Council, Doru Romulus Costea, refused to comment directly on Huda’s arrest, except to say it was unrelated to her work at the United Nations.

But Joseph K. Grieboski, founder and president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy in Washington, has created a blog chronicling what he describes as the outrageous persecution of Huda for publicizing human rights violations.

“The conviction of Mrs. Huda for erroneous and unsubstantiated charges of corruption continues to be a horrific example of limitless avarice of totalitarian states for absolute control, even over those citizens who have dedicated their lives to nothing but the betterment of the world,” Grieboski argued.

Despite lingering criticism, Kabir said Bangladesh hopes to close most of the cases before the mandate of the interim government expires at the end of next year. “These cases are fast tracked,” he said. “You can’t keep them pending for a long time or the public will lose patience. These cases have to be tried quickly.”

He added: “This government has a tenure of two years. We cannot take up everything we want to, but we can set the stage for a future government to address more long-term issues.”

Turning away from the subject of high-profile public corruption cases, Kabir said that as a new ambassador in Washington, he hopes to convince the U.S. government to relax its tariffs on goods made in Bangladesh. Last year, the country exported some billion in goods to the United States, a large percentage of which were agricultural and textile products. Tariffs, however, averaged around 15 percent, or nearly 0 million, ranking the country 13th as a source of tariff money for the United States but only 52nd as a source of goods, according to the embassy.

Overall, garments account for more than three-fourths of Bangladesh’s worldwide exports. The garment industry employs 15 million people—2 million of whom are women—and Bangladesh has been praised by the United States and others as a world leader in the fight to eradicate child labor.

“We are fighting the scourge of poverty,” Kabir said. “The business we are doing here is having a direct impact on the struggle against poverty. When the United States does business with Bangladesh, it’s not only business—it also has a huge social impact at home.

“We believe it is the moral responsibility of the United States, as the leading economy in the world—as the leader of the free world, as you call it—to allow us to earn our living and to come out of poverty,” he continued. “If you allow us—and for that matter other least developed sectors—a slice of your market, particularly in the apparel sector, it will not affect your economy in a big way, but it will allow us to make a living in a dignified way.”

But the ambassador also acknowledged the assistance that the United States has already provided his poor, low-lying nation. “The fight against poverty is a global fight,” Kabir said. “I think the U.S. has been a very beneficial kind of partner with us.”

Finally, Kabir said he would like to invite Americans to reconsider their perspective on Bangladesh. “Whatever visibility we do get comes from a negative perspective—floods, violence, that kind of thing,” he said. “But this is not the real Bangladesh. Yes we have some problems, but the other side of the issue is the creativity of our people—how we are surviving and how we are thriving.

“If the other side is highlighted as well, then you will understand what Bangladesh is all about.”

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999