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    South Asia
     Aug 23, 2005
Bangladesh's political bombshell
By Farid Bakht

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Has anyone nominated Bangladesh for the Guinness World Records for the events of August 17? On that day, nearly 500 explosions took place in 63 out of 64 districts, all within a 30-minute period. The following day, the last district, Munshiganj, also witnessed explosions. This was conducted with military precision. Considering the scale of the operation, casualties were minimal at two deaths and 100 injuries. Causing maiming and death was obviously not the purpose. But what was the agenda?

The targets chosen were primarily government buildings or institutions. Foreign or Western institutions were not on the whole threatened. Initially, people were more mystified than frightened. Political violence is not new since bombings and assassinations first made their entry in 1997. Nevertheless, the sheer audacity, reach and synchronization have shaken everyone out of their complacency. This was meant to be a signal, a wake-up call. Forces outside the conventional mainstream are active and possess the power to influence the future of the country. In the continuing political crisis in the country where general strikes (hartals) are normal and called regularly, extra-constitutional forces are letting us know that they are "players" too in politics. They wanted to send an unequivocal message that they must be taken seriously by the mainstream and not relegated, as up till now, as an isolated "loony fringe".

The usual suspects have been identified as the culprits - the banned Islamic armed movement, Jamaet-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). However, the sheer scale of the operation leads many to conclude that others are involved, particularly foreign groups.

In no other country in the world has such a bombing campaign been conducted by a domestic movement. Consider the revolutionary movements in South Asia, such as the United Liberation Front of Assam (India). None has been able to coordinate a similar operation. The only equivalent is the Maoist forces in Nepal, which have been able to take over two thirds of the country and encircle the capital city at will.

To put it into perspective, no underground movement in Bangladesh yet has the power to capture state power as the Maoists are threatening to do in Nepal. But the question being asked is: is this a shot across the bow to ready us for a real challenge a few years down the road? Are we talking 10 years or as little as five?

Who benefits?
The JMB may be the ones who "pulled the triggers" so to speak. But who gave the orders? The intelligence agencies have been heavily criticized for their failure to warn the government. That seems harsh. Several thousand people were involved in the bombings, using timer devices. They had to be trained, financed, transported, housed and been in communication with their colleagues. How could all this go unnoticed? It is therefore logical to assume that the agencies did know something was up. For example, the Home Minister initially said that he had prior information. He subsequently changed the story to having received no warning beforehand. There is a common perception that a very powerful lobby is able to protect radical movements from arrest or scrutiny.

No investigation will succeed, as we have seen with previous incidents all leading to a dead end. This shortcoming is not restricted to the current regime. The previous Awami League government, too, failed to bring to justice those responsible during its tenure from 1996 to 2001.

Where do we go from here? We need to consider who would benefit from such an event and what its consequences will be.

The two main political parties, the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party alliance and the opposition Awami League, have publicly accused each other. Not only is it cheap, it is inaccurate. Neither party can possibly benefit from such instability. The local organizations of both parties are in shambles and not ready for campaigning in elections set for January 2007. In fact, one wonders how elections can take place in such an environment. One presumes the perpetrators have a strategy and are able to strike again. Given the volatile political situation, which is set to worsen this winter, we could see more bombings, this time with the possibility of horrendous casualties.

So one wonders, who will benefit if elections do not take place? That leads to a conclusion that they lie outside the likely winners of any election, that is, beyond the two main parties.

Democracy in serious peril
Though Bangladesh had been able to conduct three general elections since 1991 in a relatively free and fair manner, the country has been in permanent political crisis. Given that politics is Dhaka-centric, this has been accepted as a necessary evil by a growing urban middle class. They have benefited from the success of the ready-made-garments industry and the retail and real estate boom in the capital, partly fueled by illegal diversion of aid money. However, the escalation of prices of basic essentials, the rampant corruption and the general insecurity of a tense city means that this support has all but vanished and hit rock bottom. Dissatisfaction with the status quo is widespread, across all sections.

Beyond the capital, the rural economy is in the doldrums as small-scale farming ceases to make sense as a business or a livelihood. The villages have been ignored. The general population has not seen the benefits of aid or export earnings filter down to them. After 14 years, democracy has not produced the goods.

We have had a few days to gauge popular reaction since the bombings. So far, there has not been any serious condemnation by the majority of ordinary people. Sure, many political groups are bringing out demonstrations against the bombings, especially the Islamic parties. But how much of this is being enacted solely for the media? The talk in the tea-stalls, restaurants and village markets is not about public anger. On the contrary, it is about recognition of a parallel force that is able and prepared to offer a challenge. So far they lack an acceptable message. The people of Bangladesh are not ready or willing to accept a theocratic Islamic state.

The question is: are they willing to defend democracy in the next 12 months, or will they be indifferent to a changing of the guard?

Farid Bakht is a columnist and entrepreneur, based in Dhaka and London.

(Copyright 2004 Farid Bakht)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

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