Bangladesh: Death of a Democracy
Tarique Rahman is angry when he turns up at a nondescript hotel in Kingston upon Thames on a dank midweek afternoon. He’s twitchy and ill at ease, this being his first interview with a foreign journalist. But the scion of an exalted Bangladeshi political family, whose father and mother both ruled his homeland, raising him to follow in their footsteps, has other things on his mind.
As he settles into a sofa in a corner of the guesthouse with a cup of Earl Grey tea, Rahman ponders his country’s rapid descent from a rough-but-ready democracy into a virtual dictatorship. He sifts through the murder of opposition activists, the rise of powerful Islamic militant groups, and the increasing politicisation of the police and judiciary. But he reserves most of his ire for Britain, a place he loves, and which offered sanctuary when he fled his homeland 2009, yet which funds the politicians responsible, he says, for Bangladesh’s demise.
As he sips, Rahman draws a straight line between the generosity of DFID, the department vested with allocating Britain’s annual £11 billion foreign-aid bill, and the authoritarian excesses of Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. DFID’s funding to Hasina’s government nearly doubled over the course of the coalition government, hitting £300 million last year.
Some of this is used to build new schools and hospitals, and mend fishing nets. But too much, he avers, helps to undermine democracy and prop up a belligerent and paranoid government. “British aid is being used in Bangladesh to create a monster,” he says, referring to Hasina and her ruling party, the Awami League, which has been in power since 2008. “It makes me angry. Britain talks about human rights and democratic values. But when the government knows that this money is being misused, and how it’s being misused, doesn’t that subvert human rights and democratic values? The United States has cut funding for Bangladesh, because it doesn’t know how its money is being used. So why is Britain sending more and more? What DFID is doing is very sad and very wrong.”
Politics in Bangladesh is becoming, Rahman warns, a monologue delivered by the Awami League. “Either you are with Hasina, or against her,” he says. “If she doesn’t like you, she will have you killed. First she will bribe you, then threaten and abduct you. If that doesn’t work, she will have no compunction about having you murdered.”
If that sounds a little hysterical to anyone reading this in a leafy corner of Surrey, the reality on the ground in the overcrowded capital, Dhaka, is rather different. More than 50,000 activists affiliated to the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the main opposition party founded in 1978 by Rahman’s father Ziaur, are in jail. A local human rights group, Odhikar, links 200 politically motivated abductions to the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite anti-terror unit trained by British paramilitary forces. BNP officials put the true number of abductions at closer to 1,500, a number dismissed by RAB chief General Benazir Ahmed as “cheap propaganda”.
Others believe the country is unraveling as senior figures in the police are forced to take sides against anti-government protestors or face demotion – or worse. When thousands took to the streets of Dhaka in February to complain about the muzzling of free speech, the city’s deputy chief of police, Mahfuzul Nuruzzaman, dismissed them as traitors and called on police to target the families of demonstrators. “Do whatever is needed,” he urged his officers. “Don’t just shoot – destroy their entire descendants.’
Many appear to be taking his orders at face value. Newspapers fill every day with stories of opposition leaders and journalists winding up dead in rivers and canals. The Liberal Democrat peer Lord Carlile warns that normal democratic institutions are on the verge of failure. “The current government is using the police and the army for political purposes, and the opposition feels it is forced into a situation of having to protest about the entire system,” he says. “The result is a total collapse in public order.” New York-based Human Rights Watch paints a bleak picture of extrajudicial killings disguised as ‘crossover’ killings, an increasingly narrow political discourse, and a worsening human rights situation.
Rahman believes no one is safe from a capricious and hostile state – even his mother, the two-time premier Khaleda Zia. In January, at the height of protests that coincided with the first anniversary of last year’s controversial general election, she was kept under house arrest for three weeks. On April 22, her motorcade was fired at during a trip to the south of Dhaka, an event that struck many as eerily similar to the murder of former Pakistan premier Benazir Bhutto in 2007. BNP leaders later accused the Awami League of orchestrating the attack.
Is Rahman himself safe, here in south London? “Here, yes I do, mostly,” he says with a thin smile. “The question is whether I would be killed if I were to return home, and the answer to that is an absolute ‘yes’.”
Rahman wasn’t born into wealth and privilege. His family acquired its political gloss only after Ziaur, a former military commander, rose to power in the late 1970s. After his assassination in 1981, Khaleda Zia took over the reins, proving a wily and able politician. Along with Hasina, she has dominated Bangladeshi politics for more than three decades. Long seen as a natural future leader, Rahman is surprisingly vocal about his long-term ambition. Slight and diffident at first, his entire demeanour changes when power is mentioned. “I want to be prime minster of Bangladesh one day,” he says firmly, leaning forward and jabbing his finger in the air. “There is so much I want Bangladesh to achieve. The country is poor and broken. I want to change all of that.”
Little wonder Hasina sees him as a threat. Corruption charges were used to sully his name. When that didn’t work she opened a new line of attack, accusing him of launching a grenade attack on a 2004 Awami League rally, in which 24 people died. In April, Interpol issued a ‘red notice’ against Rahman, but stopped short of asking Whitehall to extradite him to Dhaka, a fact seized on by his London lawyer, Toby Cadman, a prominent human-rights specialist. Talk of an imminent arrest in the UK was “nonsense”, Cadman said; the red notice had been issued purely for “political reasons”. Rahman gestures wanly when asked about the allegations. “Why would I walk into a political gathering and try and kill people?” he reasons. “I’m a politician. Would David Cameron or Ed Miliband do that?”
A broader threat stems from the collapse of traditional two-party politics. With the BNP effectively sidelined, new parties are springing up to fill the void, including those toeing an extreme, Islamist line. Two such parties are Hefajat-e-Islam Bangladesh, formed in 2010 to protest against equal pay and women’s rights, and Jama’at ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, the country’s largest jihadist group. Many even with in the Awami League are fretful of the emergence of militant groups. In February The Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based consultancy, warning of “growing evidence” of the spread of terror group Islamic State, and signs of a “renewed Islamist fervour” among young Bangladeshi men. Several prominent liberal or atheist journalists have been hacked to death in Dhaka in recent months by machete-wielding thugs shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’.
Many fear that increased militancy could have untold spillover effects, both in Dhaka and among Britain’s 500,000-strong Bangladeshi community. Politicians are right to fret about the rise of a more vocal strain of Islamism in this dirt-poor country of 160 million, which suffers more homicides per head of population than Afghanistan. The cross-bench peer Lord Carlile sees Islamic fundamentalism as a “clear and very real threat” both to Bangladesh and to Britain’s immigration system. “Could you realistically send a Bangladeshi woman back home if the country was under the thumb of the Islamic State?” he asks.
Rahman sees the problem in far simpler terms. “Immigrants will flee the country in their droves as the country fails,” he warns. “Many will naturally choose Britain, where they have family, friends, bonds and ties. Some will fail but others will succeed, and then more. That will affect everything here – budgets, jobs, health spending, the ability to house everyone and keep public order. Is that what the UK wants?” Whitehall, he adds, “has been our friend for decades, helping us through hard times, helping us build a country. Now, in Sheikh Hasina, you are building a monster, a dictator, who could destroy the entire state of Bangladesh. Does Britain want that as its legacy?”
Photo Credit: Charlie Tarr