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Volume 1 Issue 1 | November 2006


Month in Review: Bangladesh
Month in Review: International
Promises to Keep -- Rehman Sobhan
Original Forum Editorial
In the Beginning -- Hameeda Hossain
The Election Conundrum -- Mahfuz Anam
The Big Bang -- Afsan Choudhury
Time to Play the Long Game -- Farid Bakht
Struggling for Democracy -- Kamal Hossain
How Did We Get Here?-- Zafar Sobhan
Should I Swing? -- Inam Ahmed
Photo Feature
Pirates of the Caribbean -- Tariq Ali
Broken Promises -- Ahmed Rashid
Thailand's Silk Revolution -- Larry Jagan
Evolution of Bush Doctrine -- Martin Woollacott
Support for Democracy? -- Yogendra Yadav
Feet of Clay -- FS Aijazuddin
Militarization of Politics -- Syed Badrul Ahsan
Roll Play -- Badiul Alam Majumdar
Shamsur Rahman, In Retrospect -- Kaiser Haq
Arguing with Amartya Sen -- Yasmeen Murshed


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How did we get here?

Zafar Sobhan takes a closer look at the violence that has disfigured Bangladesh in recent weeks and minces no words in apportioning blame for the atrocities

The dilemma of writing for a monthly magazine is that between the time we go to press on November 10 and the time this issue hits the stands on November 15 it is almost impossible to predict what kind of state the country will be in.

The Awami League has said that it will shut down the country from November 12 if the demands that it tabled on November 3 are not met. Just about the only thing that is certain in Bangladeshi politics is that their demands will not be met within the stipulated time-frame.

Even with the best intentions of the council of advisers, it does not seem that there is any easy way out of the impasse with respect to the reconstitution of the Election Commission, to say nothing of the changes in administrative and police personnel that are needed for free and fair elections. But where we will be on November 15 is anyone's guess

On October 28, the AL launched its program of violence all across the country and was met with equal ferocity by BNP and Jamaat cadres. The fighting seemed inconclusive at the time, in part perhaps because of the strong police support for the BNP and Jamaat cadres, but it was very unclear where things would have headed had the program not been brought to an end the night of the 29th.

In the end, good sense prevailed after the president himself took over as chief adviser.

Once it was a fait accompli, the AL took the decision that there was little point in pursuing its program of agitation, though one wonders whether it would have made the same decision had Justice Hasan accepted the post.

Nevertheless, since the demand had been for Hasan not to be chief adviser, once the president had installed himself, the AL was able to pull back, and if its stated reason, that it wished to give him a chance before making a decision on his acceptability, seemed disingenuous, most people were happy enough that things had calmed down to allow them this face-saving fiction.

Of course, accounts that the army was primed to come in to restore law and order must have had much to do with the decision.

By the time this inaugural issue of Forum comes to market we will know whether this same sequence of events has happened again. There is a chance that the AL will give it some more time, but as of the time of writing, this seems a slender reed to pin one's hopes on. There was a great deal of anger in the party with the original decision to pull back and so it seems as though that this time around the hard-liners would have the upper hand.

The question is where this will lead. Clearly, the AL would again be met in the streets by BNP and Jamaat cadres, but what will happen then, and whether this will precipitate any kind of army intervention to keep the peace, I cannot predict (you will know by the time you are reading this).

One thing that I would like to address here, though, is the issue of political violence, and who bears the blame for both the violence that we have already seen and for any deterioration in the situation that may have occurred or may be likely to occur in the near future, including potential intervention by the army.

We are all appalled at the violence of October 28 and 29. But one thing that it is important to recognize is that, contrary to the perception in some circles, both sides of the political divide bear responsibility for the violence perpetrated then.

While it is true that the unrest would not have been precipitated had the AL not launched its program, it should be also acknowledged that when one side uses undemocratic means with which to hold onto power, then this narrows the range of options left open to those who dissent.

How did we get here in the first place? We got here primarily due to the immediate last elected government's apparent determination to ensure that there would be no level playing field for a free and fair election.

The second point that needs to be made about the recent violence is that the BNP and Jamaat cadres were equally to blame for the carnage, if not more so. They had determined to meet the AL in the streets, and came with fire-arms, and many of the severely wounded and dead were from the AL side. Blame for the recent carnage must therefore be apportioned between both sides.

It should be noted that the agitation began while the houses and businesses of LDP members were being fire-bombed and burned to the ground by BNP cadres. This is the same treatment that was meted out to the BDB members when they left the BNP in 2004.

Indeed, when we look at political violence that has been perpetrated over the past five years, it is clear where the balance of the blame actually lies. It is only one side that has been the victim of bomb blasts, grenade attacks, and high-profile assassinations. It is only one side that has perpetrated massive violence against break-away factions. It is only one side that unleashed an orgy of violence after it won the election and has continued to exert a rein of terror against rival political workers throughout the country for the past five years.

Looking at the entire context of the past five years, it is simply untenable for the BNP to be able to escape shouldering its fair share of blame for the recent political violence that has roiled the country.

No one is defending the actions taken on October 28 and 29 and it is nothing short of a tragedy that two dozen people lie dead as a result. But the notion that the monopoly of political violence lies on one side of the aisle is a myth that it is important for independent observers to challenge.

I do not know at the time of writing what will happen on the 12th and whether the actions of that and any subsequent day will lead us to an even darker political future than the one we are faced with today. I do not know if the violence and anarchy will have been so great as to call into question the democratic future of the country in which the opposing sides to the conflict are simply unable to settle their differences in a peaceable manner.

But one thing that must be made clear is that the side that has used the past five years to decimate its enemies and refuses to permit a level playing field for free and fair elections is surely equally at fault, if not more so, as the side that has spent the past five years running for its life, and in the end precipitates violence in an attempt to withstand these undemocratic machinations.

We need to look at the entirety of the past five years to understand what lies behind the violence of the last few weeks and to understand who is to blame for it. The latest spate of violence may have been initiated by the AL, but the match was first struck by the BNP. It is important that the fair share of blame for the current crisis be judiciously and correctly apportioned between the two parties.

Zafar Sobhan is Forum Editor,
Forum Magazine.

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