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     Volume 7 Issue 51 | January 2, 2009 |

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Year In Review

A Confusing Year

Nader Rahman

How will 2008 be remembered in Bangladesh? The question is far trickier than one might think. Many would be tempted to look at the recent past and say it was the year democracy came roaring back and the year in which the people were finally heard. But those answers are rooted in the present, they overlook the rest of the year, one in which promises were broken, people were hurt and reform became a dirty word.

In the house that is Bangladesh, the 'caretakers' ran amuck and barely a week into the new year Law Adviser Mainul Hosein, Food Adviser Tapan Chowdhury, Health Adviser Major General (retd) ASM Matiur Rahman and Industry Adviser Geeteara Safiya Choudhury resigned, leaving the already faltering caretaker government with a public relations nightmare. The news of their resignation came exactly two weeks after Ayub Quadri resigned his position on December 27 following a massive public outcry over the theft of two artefacts on their way to France. Without half their manpower, Chief Advisor Fakhruddin Ahmed had to appoint five new advisors overnight to his government's reputation. He duly obliged when on January 10, former agriculture secretary, AMM Shawkat Ali, former attorney general, AF Hassan Ariff, executive chairman of Power and Participation Research Centre, Hossain Zillur Rahman, former director general of National Security Intelligence, Major General (retd) Ghulam Quader, and Rasheda K Choudhury, chief executive officer of Campaign for Popular Education were appointed as the newest advisors to the caretaker government. They were handed a poisoned chalice, which they accepted with glee and eventually had to drink out of it for the rest of the year.

The year did not prove to be a good one for the caretaker government. There were two issues that really mattered and that people were talking about. The first issue was tackled as early as January 3 when the government finally realised that food prices were spiralling out of control and decided to set up Open Market Sales (OMS) of rice. The second issue lasted throughout the year and was far trickier than rice prices; it was how they dealt with political parties and their agenda on corruption.

Less than two months after cyclone SIDR, the government finally came to their senses and saw the plight of the average man and decided to reign in the price of rice. As an essential item, the increase in its price affected everyone, especially those with fixed incomes. By setting up OMSs they released the pressure off the average man who was struggling not only to make ends meet but to have three square meals a day. The so-called fair price shops proved to be hugely successful and probably averted a national tragedy, but still a lot was left to be desired. Before the first quarter of the year, India along with other major rice producing countries stopped exporting rice and for some time the country forgot about its political worries and focussed on food security. Eventually the import of rice started again and eased the public's worries, but the problem of their depleting real incomes had yet to be tackled. All the way to the last quarter of the year, it was a common sight to see long lines of people snaking up and down empty plots and fields all trying to get some 'fair priced' rice. At times there were outbursts and scuffles, but then again that summed up the mood of the nation.

While the price of rice soared, so did the prices of other essentials and this is where the caretaker government really let the people down. They needed to show that they were pro-people, but ended up showing that they were anything but. While they toiled away with politicians, trying to fix the electoral road map and desperately trying to bring about reform, they forgot that 150 million people in this country needed to eat. The situation became so untenable that the 2008 FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission found that the wholesale and retail prices of coarse rice increased by 78 and 82 percent respectively between June 2006 and 2008. As if that was not shocking enough now up to 7.5 million extra people had been categorised as 'Absolute Poor', while the number of undernourished people has increased to a massive 45 percent.

(Top) The historical chit chat between the most famous political rivals became talk of the town. (Bottom) The return of 42 artefacts from France where they were displayed at the Guimet Museum in Paris.

While affordable food remained a dream for most Bangladeshis this year, they hoped that while they were starving that the country would at least be politically back on track. But the caretaker government eventually could not help out in that regard either. While the anti-corruption commission did hand out quite a few sentences, unfortunately the big fish got away. Flipping through newspapers from the first few months of the year gave one hope that the bigwigs of politics and their assorted gangs would be brought to justice. But all of that faded as fast as rice prices rose, by the middle of the year they had become central bargaining chips in the race to hold credible elections and slowly the wheels came off the bandwagon. By the middle of the year, they were each released from jail with their kith and kin and in the blink of an eye justice was dealt a cruel blow. Once they were out, the rats came out with them and by September the tune had changed from 'how do we try these criminals' to 'how can we sweep everything under the rug and hold credible elections with them'.

The general public was soothed into apathy by a multitude of foreigners who touted elections as the only way out of the mess Bangladesh was in. In practise what they were saying made sense, but then political parties hijacked that sentiment to claim that without their bigwigs, there would be no elections. The government and anti-corruption commissions gave into their demands and left us with the same old faces vying for absolute control. In the midst of all of this, the Truth and Accountability Commission was proved to be illegal and parties frantically tried to adjust their charters to accept the new pre election rules. In between all of this, brinkmanship was taken to extreme levels as the two major parties refused to register for the elections unless their demands were met. From being prisoners to demanding electoral rights, seemingly the sure fire way to get elected in Bangladesh is to spend some time in jail.

Jail time was also on the minds of the four Dhaka University teachers who were finally released after the August 20 incidents of the previous year. Garlanded with flowers and a midnight vigil their triumphant return from jail was similar yet different from our famous politicians releases from jail. Khaleda released doves in the name of her children while Hasina merely accepted her release with a smile, a wave and apparently a phone call to Chief Adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed. A few days before the teachers were released a rumour quickly spread through Mirpur that a garments worker had been killed in a factory and that the owners had hidden a body. That resulted in an explosion, as violence flared up around the city. Garments workers went about damaging vehicles and property and this would be the archetypical scene that would be repeated many times over the year as tensions between garments workers and owners heightened. From the owners side, the continuous supply of power was never provided thereby creating havoc with their pre-orders, while on the workers side salaries where still low and inconsistently disbursed, together with deplorable living conditions. For the garments industry to stay top of the pile in Bangladeshi business, there needs to be three pronged effort from the government, the owners and the workers, to make it work. Anything less could prove to be a disastrous failure.

(Top Left) Fazle Hasan Abed. (Top Right) Tahmina Anam. (Bottom) The Moitree Express, Bangladesh’s first train to link it with neighbouring India.

While some people go out in a frenzy merely on the rumour of a death, our nation also had to deal with its fair share of goodbyes to some of the best and brightest we had to offer. Within the first week of January noted Ambassador Ruhul Amin passed away and was quickly followed by the incomparable playwright Selim Al Deen. In February the evergreen artist Devdas Chakroborty finally left us and was soon followed by the former football legend Monawar Hossain Nannu and silver screen icon S.M. Aslam, better known as Manna. Evergreen politician and former Mayor of Dhaka Naziur Rahman Monju also passed away, as did Ganotontree Party president Nurul Islam. Three veterans in vastly different fields also breathed their last as the well loved journalist Bazlur Rahman, Abdullah Al Mamun and Field Marshall Manekshaw died within a few months of each other.

The first quarter of the year also marked the return of 42 artefacts from France, where they were on display at the Guimet Museum in Paris. The previous year a group of citizens and cultural activists filed public interest litigation at the High Court hoping to keep them back in Dhaka. While they eventually made their way to Paris a hue and cry was created and a mini citizen's movement was formed to deal with the situation. It was movements such as that that gained ground in Dhaka and across Bangladesh after religious extremists tore down a sculpture depicting Bauls opposite the airport. While it was an innocuous story at first, within days people saw it as a blatant act of vandalism and small mindedness from a far right Islamist group. It gained traction and soon became an event of national importance, there were lectures, candle light vigils, processions and concerts all denouncing the overtly religious message that was given to taking down the statue. It was a call to secular, humanist arms. This spirit of resistance did not fizzle out, as in November the same incident occurred with the Balaka Storks statue. With a keen sense of direction and strong moral fibre, society at large denounced the events. While they may seem like small-interconnected events, in a way one might say they reflected the stance of a nation against extremism. The very same sentiment was overwhelmingly expressed in the general elections at the end of the year.

By March and April when rice prices were nearing their highest, all of a sudden there was a potato boom and the hype and hoopla behind that stunt all came from one man. The man apparently, with the proverbal finger on the pulse of the nation, the Army Chief Gen Moeen U Ahmed. With tonnes of potatoes rotting away in go downs and silos, he offered potatoes as the protein rich way to save our farmers, their crop and our budgets by switching from rice to potatoes. Seemingly in an effort to carry out his plan, his position as head of the Army was also extended by a year, all the way through to April 2009. The same month the War Crimes Fact Finding Committee published a list of 1597 war criminals as public opinion grew to find and try such people in the court of law. This year was truly the year of citizen activism as there was a prolonged campaign against war criminals and efforts were made to identify and bar them from taking part in elections. The Sector Commanders Forum did the best they could to drum up support for the cause and thousands of citizens never let the pressure up to act against such people. If anything, the citizens rising to the occasion to support our country, its people and its values was possibly the highlight of the year.

By the middle of the year Bangladesh's sporting fortunes seemed bright, but as they always do disappointed in the end. Kazi Salahuddin was elected as President of the Bangladesh Football Federation and for the first time in years he seems to be the right man for the job. One might say his election was the highlight in an otherwise disturbing year for Bangladeshi sport. The cricket team remained consistently inconsistent yet again as they won a paltry five One Day Internationals (ODI) out of 27 played. That too four came from beating Ireland and the UAE, not exactly the world's greatest teams. The real achievement was not even winning a solitary ODI against New Zealand, but pushing them hard in the first test and nearly eking out a victory. But that was rare highlight in a year of abject failure. 2008 was also the year, two greats of Bangladeshi cricket finally stepped down, Khaled Mashud Pilot and Mohammad Rafique finally hung up their boots and with them, the most important chapter in Bangladesh's cricket finally closed. But there was to be turmoil as 14 rebel cricketers including 6 centrally contracted players joined the Indian Cricket League. For a sport where we are barely competitive, this was nothing short of a body blow. Within days everyone who joined was banned and with it some of our finest talents slipped away. Shahriar Nafees, Alok Kapali, Aftab Ahmed, Dhiman Ghosh and Forhad Reza will all be sorely missed by Bangladeshi cricket, but by performing admirably in the ICL they restored some faith in our own boys' abilities. They took on some of the best in the world and came out as winners. This issue needs to be solved if Bangladesh is to make meaningful progress in international cricket and to do so we will have to stand up to the mighty Indian Cricket Board. 2009 should show us what we're made of.

By the middle of the year the second budget by a caretaker government was passed and with a huge annual development budget, only a fraction of which the caretaker government has been able to use. July produced a major shock as oil prices were increased dramatically overnight. It caused an even greater shift towards gas which we are yet to tap resourcefully. The sharp increase in price was expected yet it still presented a challenge to the average citizen. As it so happened global oil prices tumbled shortly afterwards and by the end of November the same prices which were increased were decreased by 10 to 12 percent. At least there was one upside to the global financial crisis.

The melamine contaminated milk scandal prompted many to opt for liquid milk and the bird flu scare destroyed many poultry businesses in the country.

2008 was also a year of two health crises in Bangladesh as the first half of the year was infected with a resurgence of Bird Flu and the second half of the year there was a scandal over melamine-contaminated milk from China. For a year in which prices increased exponentially these two crises were not the best things for consumer confidence and in fact they took a great toll on business around the country. Hundreds of people lost thousands of units of poultry as they were destroyed and importers were clueless as to what to do with the tainted milk they had already bought. In the world of business there was also the depressing news that Tata had officially backed out of Bangladesh and were looking for strategic investments elsewhere. On the brighter side the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry celebrated its 50th anniversary with great pomp and pageantry, while simultaneously holding an International Business Conference. While on the other end of the spectrum the Centre for Policy Dialogue said people's incomes had dipped 36 percent in the first 15 months of the caretaker government's tenure, a statistic which added to our woes. There were also great expectations for Grameen Phone's IPO (Initial Public Offering), which eventually did not materialise. But shockingly enough the company along with City Cell and Banglalink were embroiled in a massive VOIP scam which cost the companies millions of Dollars in fines. So much so that Professor Yunus, officially denounced Telenor and there was a very public spat between the two.

On the international front, it was yet another mixed year for Bangladesh. By the end of the year India had officially labelled Bangladesh as a country that houses militant extremist Islamists that carry out attacks on India. There was a bombing in Jaipur where Bangladeshis were blamed and before all the facts were out, Bangladesh was named as one of the countries that may have housed the militants who attacked Mumbai. While this was dismaying enough, so were the continued border disputes with India and the massive dispute with Myanmar who waltzed into Bangladesh's backyard, looked around for some natural gas and then left. This caused much tension between the two nations and at one point there was even a build up of troops on both sides of the border. On a larger scale Bangladesh finally accepted money from the British government to deal with the affects of climate change. While it seemed like a bold and innovative move, many other least developed countries were up in arms, saying Bangladesh should not have signed. They felt by acting together as a group they could have got more money out of the first world countries, the people who are responsible for the global warming Bangladesh and other LDCs have to suffer through. One positive note was the reestablishment of the train link between Kolkata and Dhaka, after 40 years it was a welcome reminder that India and Bangladesh were more friends that enemies.

Bangladesh was also the destination of more than a few high profile visits this year, starting off with the Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki Moon. Towards the end of the year even the losing American presidential candidate John McCain and Senator Joe Lieberman made a brief appearance. Amongst others Cherie Blair came to visit Shekih Hasina and even the Aga Khan made a trip here as well, while Rahul Gandhi also visited out shores as well. Internationally 2008 was a good year for Bangladeshi's and awards, Dr. Fazle H. Abed of Brac won the prestigious Conrad Hilton Foundation Humanitarian Award, our Peacekeepers won UN awards and Tahmima Anam won the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

The cricket team remained consistently inconsistent yet again as
they won a paltry five One Day Internationals (ODI) out of 27 played.

Education also proved to be a sector of real importance this year as HSC results went though the roof, with over 74 percent passing and over 20,000 receiving a GPA of five. While many questions still linger over the question papers and the neutrality of the results, it was a shot in the arm for education in Bangladesh. Chittagong also opened its doors to the Asian University for Women as for the first time as it strives to be one of the leading educational institutions of the region. That education and those results would have been a blessing for the millions of migrant workers we send abroad every year. 2008 proved to be a particularly bad year for them as many came back tortured, and broken both mentally and physically after being maligned in the Middle East. There was even a point when the region stopped hiring Bangladeshi workers altogether. They suffer silently every year, and the government does nothing for them. Many more years like 2008 and soon there will be no migrant workers to protect.

Finally 2008 will be best remembered for the elections under a successfully reformed Election Commission, that seemingly swept all the pain away. They were free and fair and the Awami League trounced the BNP, but where do we go from here? 2008 was the year of the voter ID card and the year the public spoke at the ballot box rather than the living room, but there is still a sense that something is missing. The anti-corruption drives that started so well fell by the wayside and it remains to been seen whether the next government continues this important work, netrally and sincerely. Voting them in was a statement of intent, but now can they live up to our expectations? That is a question which will be answered in 2009. As we confine 2008 to our past, it is quite obvious the year served up more questions than answers, which is confusing to say the least.

.Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008