A Never Ending Duel On Course To Take More Lives
by Irfan Chowdhury for Alal O Dulal
This blog does not provide coverage of breaking news. As we stated in an editorial, we are a volunteer-run blog and do not have the resources to verify information in real-time. Thus our focus has been to produce long form analytical pieces. Yet, there emerge situations that demand “breaking news” coverage. The ongoing nationwide protests and blockades which have been reported to have taken many lives, we consider, is one such exceptional instance. Below is an overview of the current situation.
A Never Ending Duel
by Irfan Chowdhury for Alal O Dulal
It was always going to come to this. The unknowns were the timing and the exact details of how. Anyone who follows Bangladesh politics would be accustomed to the vehemence that treats ordinary and helpless lives as arbitrage when the queens clash for the throne. The manner and the technique have been refined over time with callous inhumanity. What have changed are the levels of intensity.
Since the nation returned to parliamentary democracy twenty years ago, transition from one term to the next has always created prolonged instability. The use of hartal, a method frequently used to paralyse life, has been a common weapon for the opposition, to force the government to compromise or to accept its demands. The demands have usually been about holding the elections under a “caretaker government”– a formula currently abandoned by constitutional amendment and the focus of the current crisis.
The issue is an utter lack of trust between the two sides, originating in an uneasy past that they can never let go. This was on public display in a leaked telephone conversation between the two party leaders on
26 October, when both failed to show leadership or statesmanship in a spirit of compromise. Much was anticipated from a dialogue between the two who have not spoken for years – that a peaceful agreement would be reached and the general public would be spared. Sadly this was not to be as the leaders chose to dwell on a 37 minutes’ squabble, which drew the analogy of a ‘Punch-and-Judy show‘ from reputed media outlets such as the Economist.
This week the United Nations warned politicians to end the brinkmanship or else they could be tried for “crimes against humanity” for election time violence. The European Union voiced similar concerns. However, over time, a bunker mentality has developed such that even these types of admonishments do not effect either the government or the opposition.
Yet both the leaders (and their respective parties) have millions of followers who like their leaders cannot compromise, even for the betterment of the nation– it is not clear what exactly the followers are thinking at present. Ordinary voters have backed the parties alternately (each party has now been in power twice), as though they intended to punish the incumbent and to give the opposition a chance to govern and redeem them from their past follies. It could just be that they are not bothered who governs them as long as they can be left alone to get on with their lives.
The partisans, however, defend their stance. One side says an all-party interim government headed by the current PM to oversee the election is a superior method (and a convention) widely followed in established democracies. The other side argues that, that we are not sufficiently evolved in democratic terms, nor do we have the independent institutions to conduct a free and fair election under an incumbent government, as the impartiality of the Election Commission and the administration is questionable.
The trouble is that ordinary people, their lives and livelihoods are caught in the impasse as well as in the violence. While the PM and her supporters are using the current strike casualties to highlight an “evil spirit”, it is demeaning the intelligence of the masses. An increasing number of opposition leaders have been taken into custody and denied bail on flimsy allegations of their involvement in the violence, although it is true that they have called for these protests.
The current issue dates back to 2011 when the government enjoying a two-thirds majority changed the constitution to get rid of the ‘interim caretaker government provision’ that gives the basis for a non-partisan election-time administration to oversee a general election. Consistent with the preceding three terms of the parliament (under BNP, then AL, then BNP), the government’s heavy-handedness and inflexible mindset forced the opposition to boycott parliament where they had neither the numbers nor the voice to block the government’s proposed bills.
This has been the ironic scenario for both parties in their alternating roles – as government or as opposition. So, while the current opposition can justly ‘cry foul’, its deeds in government last time were no less confrontational (and last time that led to the military government of “1/11”). Moreover, it seems that the opposition’s reassurance (by the opposition leader in a speech in October) that it would not unleash a spree of revenge (similar to the last one) when it ascends to power, as consistently demonstrated by a number of opinion polls, has failed to reassure the government.
Still, the less than promising opinion polls, ineptitude and corruption add up as more reasons for the government to push ahead with an election under its watch, maybe in the hope that the opposition will not participate. It can then win and continue with its rule with feeble opponents and first time independents.
But there are always risks. In the recent past when situations reached such boiling states, the army intervened. There is a belief that the government is making great efforts to secure the loyalty of the top echelon. A recent reshuffle of the ranks was also preceded by a mass verdict meted out on 5 November, nearly five years after a February 2009 bloody mutiny – ‘Pilkhana carnage‘ – which took the lives of more than seventy military officers and their family members.
The government’s handling of that crisis has been controversial (some analysts believe direct action to attack the mutineers, rather than negotiating, might have produced fewer deaths) and it is presumed that there is still discontent inside the army over the handling of this situation. The reshuffle and the verdict may have been timed to appease, or control, such elements.
Even though the army’s role is vital, especially when it comes to the maintenance of law and order if the current episodes of nationwide blockades and protests continue, it may have good reasons not to be involved. While its involvement in breaking a somewhat similar stalemate in 2006 (also known as the ‘minus two drive’) was initially popular, by the time the ad hoc tenure of two years was complete both the army and the civilian administration that it had set up had gathered sufficient stains for them to perhaps be unwilling to undertake such a role again.
Even so, no one can really rule the army out from a political equation – ever. And if apprehension of a backlash is fair – from the election-winning future government (now the opposition) – perhaps army intervention would not only be wished by some but this time they could choose to stay longer.
Unprecedented international coverage of the developments has ensued, with envoys from the United Nations, USA, European Union, and India visiting the country to help broker a peaceful solution; foreign parliamentary committees have also discussed the situation. There has also been some unusually high-profile editorials carried out by newspapers such as The New York Times, The Hindu.
In particular, The New York Times strongly accused the PM for being responsible for the deadlock, while The Hindu cautioned New Delhi not to take sides and that an election victory without the main opposition party participating would be hollow for AL.
In coming weeks, depending on further developments, no doubt more international initiatives will be seen. But while international observers and their full involvement are important factors for the government to consider, ensuring the legitimacy of the polls, sadly, foreign mediations have never worked to resolve the differences.
The government is likely to go ahead with the polls on 5 January and take harsher measures to keep protests under control. However, a surprise move such as the PM’s resignation as the head of the interim government as a token of compromise cannot be ruled out.
The opposition, notwithstanding its factions, which perhaps is willing to participate, as they believe their support is so overwhelming (or the government is so unpopular) that an election win is all but certain, is likely to continue with the protests. But it could also join the polls if the PM steps down before the election. However, by then the government may have achieved what it wanted which is to give as little time as possible to the opposition to prepare for the polls.
Whilst there may be some “behind the door negotiations or some efforts for them” are taking place, it would appear that any moves to cool things off are still a few days away. At present, the government, rather than taking on an active role to protect citizens, is using the chaos to criticize the opponent– further inflaming the situation.
The opposition on the other hand argues that the violence is justified in current situation, and that the current government also carried out violence against them in 2006 when the roles were reversed.
And that is the saddest part. Our politicians have developed a culture of holding people hostage to advance their political gain. While all politics/politicians around the world do that to varying degrees, but apart from the catastrophic civil wars, it is difficult to imagine such routine casualties incurred anywhere – and for what? To resolve the parties differences? Can it be any more awful?
As it is still anybody’s guess as to how it might end this time, individual casualties, disproportionately subjecting the working poor, is the only certainty. There will be more victims of this never-ending duel.