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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 August 2007, 11:46 GMT 12:46 UK
Troubled waters in Bangladesh
By Tahmima Anam

Bangladeshi man in a train
Bangladesh faces an uncertain future
In August 1947, the architects of an independent South Asia had little idea that they were laying the groundwork for the creation of not two, but three countries.

The two-nation theory of Mohammad Ali Jinnah turned out to be harbinger of three nations - India, Pakistan, and eventually, Bangladesh. And if India was built on secular lines, and Pakistan upon religious unity, then Bangladesh was created by the linguistic and cultural nationalism of the Bengali people.

The founding fathers of Bangladesh were also interested in another idea, one that had yet to fully take root in Pakistan: democracy.

Between the 1947 partition of India and the creation of Bangladesh, Pakistan had struggled to establish a democracy, as power passed from one military ruler to another.

On the eve of Bangladesh's birth, we vowed to do better.

Deeply flawed

Since independence in 1971, Bangladesh has been at pains to create democratic institutions that will weather the multiple challenges of poverty, globalisation, climate change, corruption, and the handicap of being a young country in a world of established military and economic powers.

The army should hold an election and return to its barracks
But far more than our neighbour India, the political leadership in Bangladesh has had a troubled relationship with democracy. Again and again the army has muscled into power.

The longest-standing example of this was the dictatorship of General Hossain Mohammad Ershad, who ruled Bangladesh for nine years, destroying our nascent democratic institutions and creating the foundations for the unbridled corruption that has since hobbled the nation.

Through mass protests and a popular campaign of agitation, Ershad was overthrown in 1991, and since then, three general elections have taken place in Bangladesh.

For three consecutive elections, we have had a large and enthusiastic electorate who have ushered in freely elected governments and representative parliaments. Although young and sometimes faltering, we have been understandably proud of our fledgling democracy.

A protest against Awami League supporters
The opposition has protested against electoral corruption
But our democracy has been nothing if not deeply flawed. The last 15 years have seen each ruling party brutally repressing the opposition; in retaliation, opposition parties have boycotted the parliament, sometimes for years at a time. And worst of all, the accountability of our politicians has lessened as corruption, greed, and blatant disregard for their offices has increased without pause.

These trends laid the groundwork for the events of January 2007, when the political landscape in Bangladesh underwent a dramatic shift.

Instead of looking forward to another chance to exercise our democratic rights, we realised, on the eve of the fourth election, that this election was planned and engineered to give victory to the ruling party.

After a series of protests against electoral corruption led by the opposition Awami League, a military-backed caretaker government stepped in, promising to clean up the political landscape and hold free elections.

Although the people at the helm of this shift wore military uniforms, we applauded them, because without them we would have had a sham election.

And when they started arresting corrupt politicians, officials and businessmen who believed they were above the law, we still applauded them, because those people who had been the source of institutional decay were suddenly held accountable for their actions.

Paying the price

The military-backed caretaker government is heralding a series of reforms - electoral, bureaucratic, and institutional.

They have also instigated reforms within the political parties, which have begun a close examination of their party members. But the fact remains that these reforms have not have taken place within a democratic framework, and that raises serious questions about their long-term sustainability.

Instead, we have a non-elected, military-backed regime performing tasks without due process that should have been in the remit of our political leadership.

Soldiers patrolling a street in Dhaka, Bangladesh
A victorious army, as history has taught us time and again, is a dangerous thing

The only way to ensure the survival of democracy in Bangladesh is if the army does as it has promised: holds an election and returns to its barracks.

Otherwise, even if the military cleans up the political landscape, even if they arrest all the corrupt politicians, even if they seize the illegal assets and raze the buildings that were made with black money, who will become our new democratic leaders? Who will we be left to believe in? Only those who wrested power in the first place: the army.

If they do not hand over power to elected leaders, they will emerge as the most powerful force in Bangladeshi politics. And a victorious army, as history has taught us time and again, is a dangerous thing.


In the meantime, as with any major political or institutional instability, it is the poor who have to pay the price.

The monsoon floods that have hit Bangladesh are some of the worst in recent years.

Millions of villagers are marooned on the rooftops of their homes, waiting for relief supplies, food, and clean water.

Bangladeshi girl in a flood affected area
'The poor pay the price for instability'
The government has made confident declarations about the food supply, and of their own commitment to providing disaster relief.

But as everyone in Bangladesh knows, the state can only do so much in reaching the far corners of the country. For this, they have relied heavily on the grassroots outreach of the political parties.

With the current embargo on all political activity, the parties do not have the liberty of reaching their constituents in rural Bangladesh. Flood relief has not yet begun to stem the tide of hunger, disease, and homelessness.

The floods, tragic as they are, remind us of the importance of democratic politics in a country where the need for democracy among a largely illiterate population has been questioned time and again.

We need a rich and well-functioning democracy, not to provide credibility to a corrupt political system, but rather to ensure that the state acts and exists for all its citizens, rich, poor, sheltered, or homeless.

Tahmima Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1975. She attended Harvard University where she earned a PhD in Social Anthropology. She lives in London. Her debut novel, A Golden Age, was published earlier this year

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