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     Volume 8 Issue 94 | November 13, 2009 |

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The False Promise of Change

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

The recent arrest of members of the Mahila Awami League in Kushtia, who were allegedly secretly affiliated with the underground armed group Gano Mukti Fauz (GMF), has made headlines. Taslima Khan Ankhi and Nahid Parvin Champa, suspected cadres of the GMF, were arrested for preserving and transporting illegal arms. Ankhi, out on bail in connection with a murder case prior to the arrest, was suspended from her position as the unit's general secretary following the arrest.

Noor Hossain, a casualty of the pro-democracy movement.

The idea of women involved in terrorism has come as a rude shock to many, which explains the elaborate front-page coverage, follow-ups, etc. This is a new addition to our political culture. The rest of the (political) news, however, is history. Literally.

Student politics, as always, has little to do with students or their rights. Members of the Awami League's (AL) student wing, Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) locked up Rajshahi University's medical centre after being refused an ambulance to use for political purposes. Two rival factions of the 'student' group exchanged gunfire at a Dhaka University residential hall while two other factions clashed at Sir Salimullah Medical College Hospital. BCL activists stabbed a Rajshahi University student for protesting an indecent comment. BCL and activists of the Jamaat-e-Islami's student front, Islami Chhatra Shibir, clashed at Chittagong Medical College, vandalising and setting afire dormitory rooms. Fifteen people were injured in a clash between the BCL and Bangladesh Nationalist Party's (BNP) student wing, the Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal (JCD) at Jagannath University.

BCL cronies in Faridpur and Patuakhali have been accused of rape and gang rape, even recording and distributing some of these crimes on video. They got away with floggings and minor fines through village arbitrations arranged by local AL leaders. BCL leaders of Dhaka University's residential halls have allegedly been obstructing tenders and demanding tolls. Five student BCL members were temporarily expelled for a mugging on campus.

Senior AL leaders, including the Prime Minister, have been quoted as saying that such activities will not be tolerated. But they are continuing, and with few consequences. A few cronies are not the ones who brought the party to power, and taking stern action against them would only strengthen the position of the government in the eyes of those who did.

On the family front, people have begun to wonder in what capacity members of the Prime Minister's family are seen by her side at various important official events abroad. Amendments to the Public Procurement Act 2006 have been made despite opposition from development partners and amidst fears from the business community that this will allow projects to be awarded to inexperienced bidders who are 'close' to the government, doing away with the need for competence and accountability. Attacks on political leaders have been followed by the usual blame game. Journalists assaulted by the authorities, deaths in 'crossfire', an overall deterioration of the law and order situation -- the list is endless and ageless.

The BNP, on the other hand, is fulfilling the traditional role of the opposition by boycotting parliament and every other significant national event, such as the anti-poverty rally. Its excuse is the government's 'autocratic and hostile attitude'. The fact that the place where they could have a say is the parliament, seems to be eluding them.

None of this may seem like anything new. After all, this has been going on for the past two decades of democracy in Bangladesh. The only difference is that, this time around, people expected something new, they had a <>right<> to -- such were the promises made.

The Election Commission's media campaign less than a year ago has all but faded in our minds: 'Don't vote even for your husband/son/etc., if he is corrupt/a criminal/etc.' At the time, the television spots and billboard advertisements on identifying corrupt politicians were reason for hope. People were made to believe that there would be a political overhaul and the corrupt and criminal would not be allowed back into politics. Those who would, were naturally expected to make good use of their new lease on life. The arrest and alleged torture of those accused of these crimes would be meaningless otherwise.

For the two years after the in/famous 1/11, people were made to believe that this time, change would come (and not only in America). We would embrace a new political culture in which there would be no more corruption, no more nepotism, no more terrorism, no more of any of the evils of the past. It would be a clean slate this time. This time, there would be true democracy, and the hopeful people welcomed it with open arms. But less than a year into Bangladesh's new democracy -- its fifth attempt at the concept -- little has changed. One has only to go through the news to see that we are back at square one. One government, one party, one dynasty, effortlessly replaces another.

Waiting for change. A voter in the last general elections.

Earlier this week, on Noor Hossain Day, all the newspapers printed the same photograph, commemorating the death of the pro-democracy movement activist killed in police firing back in 1987. The image of the inscription on Noor Hossain's back -- 'Let democracy be freed' -- was a stark reminder of how far we have moved away from upholding the democratic ideals for which so many sacrifices were made just two decades ago.

We have before and we have after. But the two years in between, of great ideas and grand promises, seem simply to have disappeared.


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