Sunday, June 10, 2001

'Death Proof' Security and Pre Polls Jitters

01. Dynasty ('Die Nasty"): Gratitude for Service of Ghosts?

"Death is the greatest kick of them all, that's why we save it for the last."
Carlos Casteneda.

With four weeks to go before the Awami League hangs its glove to a neutral caretaker Government and paves way for Polls 2001, the mood in Dhaka is somber and apprehensive. Hushed debates have started in earnest as to whether the polls will be held at all - and if they will not - what then? Fueling speculations are the jitters the overtly confident Awami League in power since 1996 betrays, as it prepares all set to pass a controversial bill in the ongoing Parliament session (Jatiyo Shongshod) to guarantee 'life-long security' to the outgoing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, her sister Sheikh Rehana and others in the extended 'dynastic family'. In demanding, the late Sheikh Mujib's offsprings are compelling a 'gratuitous goodbye' gift from the taxpayers of Bangladesh - reminding them it was their father who led the Independence struggle in 1971, and as his surviving kin it was, as the PM unashamedly put it -'not unusual to expect so'. Finely tuned to stake this claim is a press campaign of pro-Awami' intellectuals' arguing and counter claiming 'goodies' or spoils. The formidable list states that the widow of the slain Ziaur Rahman, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Leader Khaleda Zia, enjoyed similar 'status and privilege', if not equal security in the recent past.

Petty as ever, this controversy has spiraled down to how many residences Khaleda Zia was 'awarded' while she was a 'widow and housewife', and 'platinum ornaments' priced over a million takas,'recovered from Sheikh Mujib's residence after his assassination' and handed over to Sheikh Hasina. One commentator stated that Sheikh Hasina was 'neither a widow nor a housewife' hinting squarely at the Prime Minister's estranged relationship with her brilliant yet eccentric spouse Dr. Wazed Ali Mia. Sheikh Hasina's public remarks that she has to 'pay rent to live in her husband's house' and has 'nowhere to go'- is also the first official acknowledgment of her troubled marriage. Bangladesh may have buried two 'great' leaders in its bloody history - but their ghosts continues to haunt us, in the widows and children that they have left behind.

This 'life time' security guarantee demanded by the PM could well prove a catalyst to a fair run of the caretaker Government, and is being termed by experts as 'blatantly unconstitutional'. The BNP has hinted of another round of hartals to protest the Bill, should this come through the Parliament as it inevitably will, and given that they have been effectively made defunct in street agitations - thanks to the Awami goons and misuse of the Public Security Act (PSA), the opposition may take this as an opportunity not to be lost.

The further the polls are delayed or constitutionally if the caretaker Government can remain in power for six months - from the stipulated three, BNP may make use of the time for a bloody showdown of revenge - to gain lost ground by regrouping some of its own terror elements. The losers of course will be Bangladesh and its common citizen.

It is the public paranoia of Sheikh Hasina that 'killers of her father' (condemned to death during her tenure) are lurking in the shadows and will assassinate her once she steps down, that has shattered everybody's confidence. Used to a phalanx of bodyguards, be it the Special Security Force (SSF) commandos of the Army, Police and all intelligence agencies of the Bangladesh Government following her every move over the last five years, it is therefore hard to figure out what really is envisaged in the upcoming Bill, and how a 'fool proof' replication of the existing arrangement would work out, in the event of an emergency that could well threaten the PM's life. Ironically in demanding her security and asking for a 'special law', Sheikh Hasina has committed a fundamental thumbnail faux pas, in that security is a matter never discussed in public.

However, a sample of the security she currently enjoys and is quite unwilling to forgo. The PM's security detail when it goes literally 'whistling' through Dhaka is a sight, which annoys commuters and pedestrians because it means roads being blocked off by the Police, allowing only 'Her Majesty' to pass in comfort, while the less fortunate have to sweat it out in the sweltering heat. For those stuck in perennial jams that Dhaka witnesses as a matter of routine these days, it means valuable hours being lost between two points. Armed presence of security men is known to harass and intimidate anybody that makes the mistake of showing irritation as attempts to 'breach' this exercise. More than two dozen cars, Pajeros, Police vans, motorcycles, ambulance, etc., precede or follow the motorcade, even between the short distance of her official residence and office.

Never in the thirty-year history of Bangladesh, however, has a civilian ever attempted or killed any Government leader. Lest we forget, the attempt on Sheikh Hasina's life in the Ershad era was carried out by an uniformed policeman in Chittagong. The 70 kg bomb discovered close to venue she was supposed to address a public meeting, and an 80 kg bomb recovered in a secondary sweep in Kotalipara, Gopalgunj in October of 1999, suggest failures of her own intelligence apparatus - and part of the security detail that she wishes now, to protect her life. An FBI team that came to investigate the attempted assassination from the US left Dhaka, without making any statements.

But is there anything called 'death proof' security which seems to be in a round about way what Sheikh Hasina in all her infinite wisdom is asking for? I ask - who is she afraid of and by any parameter of judgment has she or her existing security personnel, been able to effectively analyze 'threat dossiers' of potential assassins out to eliminate her, her sister and other members of her family?

Sheikh Hasina's alienation from the people at large is complete and contributes to her fear psychosis as her term comes to a natural close. Like her father during his last fateful days, she is guided in part by a handful of sycophants and close circle of relatives and crony Ministers - that wish to convey to her an impression that all is hunky dory in the Sonar Bangla of her father dreams - other than her security!

While many in by far the 'supportive' Awami press are now playing turncoat in open offensive criticism, in what is construed as her failure to contain partisan violence unleashed regularly by her henchmen or their out of control progenies, corruption, nepotism, terrible economic down turn, subservient policy towards India, and inflow of illegal arms and ammunition in the eve of polls - Sheikh Hasina has more to contend with than just security. Her credibility factor and unwillingness to conform to guidelines of the incumbent neutral caretaker Government as it comes to power by end July stands foremost in her millstones, with doubts being expressed whether she stands a chance for a second term.

While polls come knocking on the door - there appears to be no efforts on her part to neutralize the fascist grip she already has on power - specifically the administration. Be that relocating Divisional Commissioners and top Police brass in District towns, appointment of partisan judges in the High Courts, or promotion of 'like minded' Generals in the Bangladesh Army - the 'no poll' hysteria may not be written off as a bunch of baloney. Bangladesh seems all set for another round of disquiet in the next four weeks and it could well start with the neutralization of the 'old administration' by the caretaker Government. To complicate matters further, one of the demands the opposition during the tenure of the caretaker Government will raise, is the removal of the Army Chief of Staff, Major General Harun ur Rashid, for his highly political speech at a rally of freedom fighters on the 26th of March, instant

02. Regional Subversives and Foreign Observers: The Awami nervousness?

The blast on the 3rd of June, at a Sunday Church prayer that killed ten Christians at Baliarchar, in Moksedpore of Gopalgunj comes at a particularly vulnerable time for Bangladesh. As I have always maintained in my previous articles, the Indian intelligence agency RAW is directly linked to all the bomb blasts in Bangladesh since March 1999; so far 44 innocent people have been killed and more than 250 injured. The 'fundamentalist conspiracy' propaganda used deliberately as a cover up for these explosions has failed to produce any culprit, and worse nobody has been tried or found guilty in that many years.

We had expected similar backlash and name-callings after the Baliarchar blast - but among the three possible reasons that is being played about, 'fundamentalist conspiracy' is the third and least acceptable. What is interesting to note is that the pro-Government slogan shouting brigade and the press has now lost all interest in the 'fundamentalist' propaganda and have maintained a 'spectacular silence'. The repeated cry of 'wolf' is indeed petering out, and as reported in sections of the press, the high priestess of Rabindra Shangeet, Ms. Sanjida Khatun, and part of the Awami 'cultural elite' whose Chayyanaut organized the Bengalee New Year's concert on 14th of April instant, where a bomb blast left more than 10 dead - refused to make any public comment or issue 'statements' against 'fundamentalist conspiracy' in the Church blast, although she was requested repeatedly by her party colleagues to do so. Sanity seems to be prevailing somewhere!

What really could be a definite motive to the blast is RAW's nervousness of a fair and free election in Bangladesh, given that there has been a great shift to the old fashioned patriotism, where 'anti-liberation' meant 'anti-Indian' - to a new level of pride, post the recent border clashes with India, where 'Bangladesh' today, means an independent country of the world than a mere neighbor of a larger 'big brother' out to jeopardize any chance of peace, prosperity or stability.

Having said that, Polls 2001, has the focus and interest of the world community at large, specially its development partners eager for democracy in Bangladesh. The anticipated arrival of over 1500 or so foreign observers have caught elements within the Awami League and RAW's Bangladesh chapter on the wrong foot. The ultimate loss of face to both these co-conspirators is the fact that more than 200,000 local observers are being trained, and the foreign participants are simply not coming in for any picnic! Diplomatic sources confirm that the foreign observers will come in at least four weeks ahead of the polls date and aggressively conduct 'pre-polls monitoring'- in essence, the neutralization of administration that the Awami league is so desperately trying to resist, and the rampant and wide spread use of armed terrorist elements to sustain their mandate or so called 'popularity' is effectively going to be up for international scrutiny.

This is a personal observation. The blast at Baliarchar, is an indicator that RAW had hoped to scare away foreign observers from the upcoming elections, by suggesting that 'Islamic fundamentalists' in Bangladesh are now targeting Christians. It had, however, not bargained for the mute reaction of the peaceful Christian community at large, or any interest at finger pointing for the slaughter of their fellow members, other than request for 'official investigation'. The presence of the Italian Father Mimmo who was leading the prayer, and the reported presence of 'two mysterious strangers' minutes before the blast, could well have deterred the RAW from carrying this incident any further, other than to mislead the general public in an English newspaper with India links in Dhaka. Citing 'defense sources on conditions of anonymity', the newspaper reported that the bomb 'looked like a pineapple and was made in Chile!'

It will therefore come as no surprise to me that over the next four weeks there could be organized provocations and a large scale pogrom of Hindus, an already vulnerable and sensitive - yet the largest minority community in Bangladesh. If that happens an exodus of Hindus to India, reminiscent of 1947, may result and could pave the way for a state of emergency to be declared and the Army to takeover state power in Bangladesh. We had better watch out - for if such a fate befalls Bangladesh, the fragile fabric of communal harmony, that die-hard religious extremist elements on both sides of the border, have been trying to tear apart- will leave us not too happy as to the future of Bangladesh.

Sheikh Hasina last ditch attempt at 'death proof security' reflects the torrid state of fear that has overwhelmed Bangladesh. Sitting at the highest office yet so insecure reveals a distance that has occurred in our 'highly friendly' relationship with India. The refusal of the Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee to meet her just after the border clashes may indicate why the Prime Minister of Bangladesh is fearful of losing her life, and it has perhaps more to do than the perceived propaganda of 'threats from Islamic fundamentalists'!!


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