‘Weak electoral process perpetuates conflict’ Professor Anu Muhammad Department of Economics Jahangirnagar University (Prof. Anu Muhammad is a professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University. He is a known economist and political activist. He has been leading a movement in his capacity as Member Secretary of the ‘National Committee to Protect Oil Gas, Mineral Resources, Port and Power’. He has authored a number of books.) Article 2: Have promises, made at the time of constituting Bangladesh an independent democratic state, been met? Professor Anu Muhammad: The process of establishing democracy in Bangladesh has been hindered in many ways. A regime in office immediately after independence imposed a one-party rule, instead of establishing a democratic institution. Initially, they indirectly set up the one-party rule that was later transformed to a direct one-party ruling system. Subsequently, the state of emergency and military rule was put in place, using the same process. Bangladesh was under military rule for almost 15 years. As a matter of fact, Bangladesh re-entered into the same form of repressive, autocratic rule which the people previously fought against to achieve independence. However, a remnant of beneficiaries remained who wished to continue this same type of government. And in terms of wealth and power, an autocratic system only benefits a small segment of the population. More than twenty years have passed since the emergence of our elected governmental system in 1991. During this period, the government should have established institutions in compliance with democratic norms. They have not lived up to expectations. For example, political parties, being autocratic, focus on one individual who can exert undue influence on their party. In running the state, political parties follow methods they are familiar with. As a result, the Parliament never becomes a functional platform. Following elections in Bangladesh, there are merely ‘representatives’ in the Parliament. When the state has adopted certain principles and bilateral and multi-national agreements, they are rarely discussed beforehand in Parliament. Important decisions are taken outside the Parliament. Vested-interests, both local and foreign, are often behind such decisions. Next, we need to realize that there has been no viable institutional structure developed within the electoral system. The Election Commission functions as a puppet of the regime which means it does not work independently. This weakness of the electoral process keeps conflicts on-going. As a result, the concept of a ‘caretaker government’ arose. When the caretaker government became partisan to the political government, this new concept also lost confidence and acceptance. Now, it is only the ruling party’s all-pervasive influence that persists. The January 5, 2014 election was held under such conditions. Besides, a judicial system, that is supposed to be guiding the nation free from executive influence, is not in place. On paper, the judiciary is independent. But, in fact, it is still an institution under the direct influence of the ruling party. The situation of the judiciary has deteriorated further. It has lost its independence and its distinct identity – whatever was left of it– in the last few years. Governmental decisions have fully influenced the lowest judiciary with the higher judiciary also subject to pressure. Article 2: What is the actual status of ‘separation of power’ and ‘independence of the judiciary’ as two of the three basic pillars of the state of Bangladesh? Professor Anu Muhammad: The status of the judiciary’s independence in Bangladesh is deplorable. Its distinct character, as an independent branch separated from the Executive, does not exist. On paper only, the lower judiciary is separated. In the way the lower judiciary operates and adjudicates, clearly demonstrates that every decision is fully influenced by the government. It can also be said that many decisions of the higher judiciary are also influenced in various ways by the government. Taking this reality into consideration, and considering how it should be functioning as a democratic institution, the judiciary of Bangladesh is not acting as a support and a last resort for its people. Article 2: Are there any inconsistencies between the aspirations of the ordinary people of Bangladesh, the political elite and the bureaucrats? Professor Anu Muhammad: There is a consistency between the bureaucrats in administration and the politicians or the politically elite. These two groups are most powerful. They cooperate with each other to further their on-going, unlawful and lawless activities. Illegally appropriating general and public property, including forests, rivers, canals or wetlands, is their main endeavor. It does not matter whether the properties are public or private. By using forged documents, black laws, and arbitrary administrative decisions, individuals, having allegiance with powerful ruling politicians, take possession of this wealth. Ordinary people’s money, foreign grants – everything is the target of their corruption. These appropriations are made on behalf of ministers and the elite segment of the political parties, because such things cannot be done without the active participation and support from the bureaucrats. Thus, the political elite are in cooperation with the bureaucrats. By reciprocating, these groups including political leaders, bureaucrats, some ‘consultants’, foreign groups, have created a syndicate to keep the cycle going. All have contributed to building this syndicate. Their main purpose is to increase their personal wealth as quickly as possible. And, in order to acquire this individual wealth unhindered and to accumulate more private wealth, they take shelter under various forms of violence. They even use agencies and forces of the state for their malicious purposes. Article 2: To what extent has militarization contributed to making Bangladesh what it is today? Professor Anu Muhammad: Militarization is taking place in two ways. First was the establishing of the military forces of Bangladesh and the expansion of their authority. Second was the creation of various armed forces under the control of private parties. The armed forces, or the law-enforcement agencies, are being expanded and used for the interests of those in power. There are additional private forces with arms under the control and patronization of power groups acting in their own interests; these forces can be termed terrorists. These terrorist groups are the most active groups in Bangladesh, today. They are not independent. Rather, they work as an associate force of different power groups. Their main job is to keep spreading violence in various forms. These forces, whose very existence, are a threat and stand in the way of the path of democracy. For instance, whenever people protest against an unlawful or unfair action and demand peace, these terrorists intervene, obstructing normal people’s lives. Examples are trade unions in garment factories, and academic institutions, sites of land-grabbing. The powerful groups protect these terrorists, both of whom are protecting their own interests. Article 2: What are the challenges in realizing the independence of the judiciary to its fullest in Bangladesh? Professor Anu Muhammad: The criminal justice system is not functioning independently, for two reasons. First, there are direct influences from those who exercise powerful means of control. If those who work in the judiciary ignore the wishes of these powerful agents they may be harmed. There can be various consequences for judges who remain in fear of these consequences. In order to avoid possible retaliation, they do many things that are questionable. Second, the judicial system is influenced not only by power but by money. Due to massive corruption, the possibility of monetary benefit is there, which happens in a direct manner. Huge money transactions take place which influence the judicial operating system. Therefore, those who are related to the judiciary are unable to play their true roles. Article 2: What is your opinion about Government excuses of ‘crossfire’ and gun battle’, endemic custodial torture and extrajudicial execution? Professor Anu Muhammad: The state is itself directly involved in these four areas. Incidents that are termed as ‘crossfire’, ‘encounter’, ‘gun-battle’ –are all made up stories. These are state-sponsored killings by forces of the state. Law-enforcement agencies such as the Police and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) openly threaten people about ‘crossfire’. Several categories stand out in murders of this kind. First, whenever any person becomes politically challenging to a particular regime, state agents are used to eliminate these challenging figures with extreme persuasion. Second, if any protestors attempt to prevent pro-government criminal gangs, in alliance with powerful people, to appropriate lands, rivers, forests, another’s property then the protestors are eliminated. Third, if any member of a criminal gang leaves the group, or if any member engages in any internal conflict within the gang, the weaker ones are eliminated in the same way. Fourth, fear is created in society in general so that a certain silent consent results out of this fear. It is done in such a way that no protests or challenges surface, which means the democratic process does not function at all. The intention is to silence any dissenting voice. If anyone speaks out they will possibly disappear or be murdered. I have heard the experiences of the people in Rampal, in Bagerhat district [adjacent to the Sundarban mangrove area where the government has given permission and land to an Indian company to establish a power plant despite a serious threat to the environment, wild life, and human livelihood]. The people protested against the decision of establishing a power plant. The RAB, police and other agencies of the state went to the people and said, “If you protest and talk too much against this governmental decision, we will put you in ‘crossfire’. It means that whenever the people talk about their rights, the threat of ‘crossfire’ is used to frighten them into submission. All incidents of abduction and disappearance are being carried out in the name of state agents. Private gangs, even commit these crimes in the name of state agents like the police and the RAB -who themselves are committing these crimes. Most importantly, whoever commits such crimes, state agents are responsible. As long as these incidents remain unanswered and unaddressed, it stands to reason that the offenders are linked to influential groups of the state. It has created a severe and distressing atmosphere in Bangladesh. Article 2: What is the difference between disappearances and ‘secret killings’ that took place before and during the independence movement and those which occur today? Professor Anu Muhammad: It is very frustrating that people still have to fight for a democratic process, independent dignity and the liberation war spirit. Immediately after independence, disappearance became a massive problem under the aegis of the Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini [Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini or National Defence Force, a paramilitary force, created in February 1972, is accused of large scale disappearances and extrajudicial executions amounting to around 30,000 in three and a half years]. The difference between the incidents that happen now and those which took place in earlier days is openness. The National Defence Force aka Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini (JRB) used to kill people secretly, while now the agencies declare the killings publicly, by making up fake stories. The JRB used to deny their killings. Now, we see agencies describe the stories of their killings. The people whom they kill are publicly stigmatized by tagging them as murderers, terrorists and the like. These killings are presented in a way that the so-called terrorism is seen as under control by them. These forces widely publicize the stories of their killings in society. Throughout the process they humiliate everything-the democratic process, the judicial system and the laws of the land. Undermined are the thoughts and consciences of people. It means that those valuable concepts of acceptability and necessity are neutered! The criminal justice system and the judiciary is first made ineffective, and then shown forth as ineffective. State institutions can then further the killing of people with the justification that terrorism is being controlled. Article 2: How independent and capable are the criminal justice institutions and the Supreme Court of Bangladesh in preventing gross human rights abuses? Professor Anu Muhammad: I don’t see any notable role for them. According to criminal law, a process is followed in investigating a case, and subsequently a charge is brought against the defendants. The role of the public institutions is the key. The police have a certain role in the process, but in fact, they are influenced by power and money. As a result, there is no space for protecting the rights of the people. It is very difficult, expensive and not possible for everyone to approach the Supreme Court. Apart from this, there are many cases where the Supreme Court gives certain directives to the Government, which are not implemented. Both the Legislature of the state and the Office of the Attorney General, act in such a manner that the Court’s order is never executed if the offenders have any allegiance with, or belong to the government. When a Court order is issued in favor of an individual, who stands against the interests of the government or its institutions, these officials keep the matter hanging, unexecuted. Lingering and not following an official court order amounts to a violation of the Supreme Court’s order and makes it ineffective. There is impunity which acts like license. In another words, the meaning of impunity offers a license to kill. It literally encourages the law-enforcement agencies to go forward, in effect following this message, “You go ahead with whatever you wish to do and undo. There will not be any consequences for your actions at all!” For the above stated reasons, the Joint Drive Indemnity Act, 2003, was passed in parliament. Subsequently, relying on the indemnity laws, the police and the RAB engaged in similar actions described above. Their crimes have crossed the line. They have been using the privilege of impunity in settling individual conflicts for personal gains and killing people for their personal benefit while branding them as terrorists. These kinds of behavior have become endemic. The situation is such that no person in Bangladesh can claim that they feel safe. Any person, man or woman, belonging to any profession or class, can be murdered or made to disappear. This is the situation that has been created in this country at the present time. If there is any minimal form of democracy in a country, impunity cannot co-exist with it! Everyone should be accountable for their actions and should face trial if need be, regardless the person, the crime committed or their socio-economic status. Article 2: To what extent has the judiciary contributed to limiting its own freedom and independence? Professor Anu Muhammad: We don’t see any effective role at present for the judiciary. The reason being, that the administration, judicial system and all other institutions are highly politicized. This is characteristic of Bangladesh. The level of politicization is such that the judiciary is not in a position to maintain fairness. Voices of those who want to be part of an independent judiciary are not heard, as a result of politicization. Within the judiciary, supporters of the Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) always endorse the actions of their party regardless of the problem. Protests, from the BNP, only surface when a matter fits into its partisan interests. They have not taken a stand for making the judiciary an independent institution nor have they presented their position on this issue. They have no program for such. We have observed how the BNP, during their time in power, maintained control over the judiciary. The beneficiaries of a politicized judiciary work to prevent the making of an independent judiciary. They wish to keep the judiciary in their own grip. As a result of politicization, independent voices are not heard. And, all those who want to fight for change to ensure independence have been hemmed in. Therefore, the judiciary survives as a hostage to the powerful, the government, regional influential leaders or a few people from the opposition. Often negotiation and exchange of money takes place among these powerful groups. Article 2: So, you think the criminal justice institutions in Bangladesh are mere puppets under the military and various political parties? Professor Anu Muhammad: Yes, as I have already explained. The criminal justice institution does not have an independent position. In fact, it does not operate by any laws. It is operated by influences which come from the government, through money, from the existing layers of power in the country. The influence of the military will depend on how much the military is allowed to be involved in any institution or with the public. For example, there are people from the military in the RAB, which is a force that does not have any restrictions and is beyond any form of accountability. The RAB itself plays the roles of the criminals. If they act as a private force for those who are known criminals in different parts of the country, then it is very difficult to bring the RAB within the purview of the law, so it remains above the law. Many RAB personnel come from the military. Even though they commit crimes they still have scope for further influence. For example, they are capable of physically threatening anyone. So, they can be hazards to the security of lawyers and judges who are working in the criminal justice system. No agency should be above the law. No agency in place should have a license to kill persons extrajudicially. No agency should exist, whose formation, training, operation, and structure remain out view of the public. Article 2: What divides the mainstream civil society in Bangladesh along political lines and how far has it affected their independence? Professor Anu Muhammad: There are two main political flows/currents in the politics of Bangladesh. They are the Awami League and the BNP. Both have associated parties. Certain populations of society are associated with these two political flows. These two parties have been in office by turns. Various allegations of misdeeds have been leveled against each one of them. The Awami League supporters defend their party by blaming the BNP for the latter’s misdeeds. The pro-BNP people do the same thing to defend their party. They publicize the wrong-doings of their rivals so as to rationalize their own bad deeds. Another group, who rejects these two parties, and who wants to stand up and help achieve the rights of the people, is not yet strong enough to do so. We hear few voices of protest among the populace. As yet, they have not been able to create a strong force in society. In the process certain things happen, such as financial transactions in the form of consultancy. A group of intellectuals get involved in consultancy, corporate funding, advertisements or commissions from various foreign groups. Due to these factors many from the educated class, who are supposed to speak out, do not and do not tell the truth. Altogether, they constitute a large group of people who not perform their required duties in government because of greed for financial rewards. One segment desires governmental power. Another segment desires appropriate rewards from the opposition for giving them support. Yet another segment never clarifies their position. Now, on the other hand, the role of the media is influenced and curtailed by advertisements. The media keep silence once an injustice occurs involving those who have money to advertise, such as real estate companies, mobile phone companies and the like. These advertisers’ crimes and corruption do not become news items due to media silence. The power of advertising, un-earned commissions, illegal financial transactions and various forms of corruption, is so encompassing that a significant portion of society does not fulfill their duties and responsibilities in actual fact. Article 2: Are the human rights organizations of Bangladesh playing their roles, at least? Professor Anu Muhammad: I don’t believe that the human rights organizations of Bangladesh are vocal enough. The situation of human rights in Bangladesh, at present, is very bad. It deteriorates, day by day. In this context, I do not see any activity by the human rights organizations. Their works are to what they are doing now. Perhaps, they are not finding suitable issues to take up. There might be fear-factors which panic them. Another aspect is their funding. Many issues depend on the types of funding on which they operate, and the sources of these funds. We rarely see the human rights organizations consistently playing their role from the perspective of principles. In an overview, they are still very weak. Article 2: Is the global paranoia about growing Islamic militancy in Bangladesh true? Professor Anu Muhammad: I don’t believe it is. It’s totally manufactured. What is the meaning of a ‘Muslim militant’, anyway? We don’t see any significant number of Islamists among the terrorist groups who operate and spread violence in our country. However, we do observe an international trend in believing this paranoia. The episode of ‘war on terror’ started by the USA in 2001, shows that the ‘war on terror’ itself terrorizes many human beings, many societies and the world. We observed that the United States uses the excuse of ‘Muslim terrorists’ to dissect and destroy many parts of the world by leading retaliations. The emergence of ‘Muslim militants’, in the previous secular countries of Iraq, Syria, Libya, and other places is due to actions of the United States. On one hand, the United States is blaming ‘Islamic militancy’ for terrorist attacks, but the growth and emergence of militancy is taking place due to their actions. By spreading propaganda against Islam and Muslims, they have caused outrageous feelings to surface against the West, among the Muslims of the world. I see three types of militancy in the world, Bangladesh included. First, groups who operate, using violence and terrorism, to sustain themselves in politics. Second, powerful groups, using ‘militancy’ as an excuse, who engage intelligence agencies and international intelligence agents to conduct various types of operations. Their purpose is to make draconian laws to repress people arbitrarily. Third, various political, regional or international powers such as India and the United States, who want to satisfy their military interests. They use ‘Islamic militancy’ to further their own agendas, focusing on a targeted area while saying, “There are Islamic terrorists!” What we need to understand is that the ‘terrorists’ are those who originate ‘terrorizing’. What the United States is spreading around the globe is nothing but terrorism. India, too, is using violence but against many communities of its own population; that is terrorism. The way they define ‘terror’ implies that the crimes they commit are not ‘terrorism’, but protesting their actions are ‘terrorism’! Thus, the reality indicates that there is more fiction than fact in the discussions on ‘terrorism’. Are those who use Article 2: Are there non-Bangladeshi interests that are involved in promoting this image? Professor Anu Muhammad: The most interested parties in exploiting ‘Islamic militancy’ in Bangladesh are the United States and India. This issue is very useful for the US and India to effect a certain strategic influence. They have certain agendas, based on Bangladesh, and other countries in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia. They try to create a certain foundation of power. We need to remember that Saudi Arabia is a key ally of the United States. So, there is no need to see the roles of the US and Saudi Arabia as different. The Saudis support various Islamist groups which become excuses for the US for bringing out and using various draconian laws. As a matter of fact, there is no doubt that both of them maintain a relationship to promote ‘Islamic militancy’. Article 2: To what extent are freedom of association and freedom of expression and opinion guaranteed for the opposition and dissident voices in Bangladesh? Professor Anu Muhammad: Constitutionally these rights are recognized. Even the government said it is so. But, in reality, we see an opposing picture. Here are five such examples: teachers protesting and demanding adequate pay; protests against secretly leasing coal mines and oil fields; protests against undisclosed agreements with a US company; protests against coal-based power plants; protests by workers to increase their wages. In all these cases, the police attacked the protestors so violently, that their actions established the reality that rights – the freedom of association and the freedom of expression do not exist in this country. The government may claim that they allow people to protest. However, attitudes and official behavior by law enforcement officers indicate that the government actually wants to snatch away all rights. Nevertheless, Bangladeshis’ still attempt to protest due to their history of fighting a war of liberation and continue to fight in the post-liberation war years. We still see certain reflections of this. Article 2: Is the culture of violence inseparable from polity, the specific form of government in Bangladesh? Professor Anu Muhammad: Exactly true! At this moment, it is very difficult to differentiate who are law-enforcement agencies and who are private terrorist groups. If we look at incidents of abduction and disappearances for one month, we find that they are carried out by law-enforcement agencies. Despite who commits these crimes, law-enforcement agencies play a role in them which shows that they have done it on behalf of private terrorist groups. In cases where private terrorists carry out abductions and disappearances for their own internal criminal matters, it is found that these offenders are related to the law-enforcement agencies. Take the example of Shamim Osman, the main terrorist of Narayanganj. He has been responsible for incidents like child assassinations, abductions and disappearances that go on unabatedly. Last year’s picture is even worse. Despite committing an endless number of crimes, he is still at large, because the law-enforcement agents do not take any action against him. In some cases, the law-enforcement agencies themselves are directly involved in the crimes. Those [seven men] who were abducted and disappeared yesterday [27 April 2014] worked for Shamim Osman. Because they left his group, they were abducted in the name of law-enforcement agencies. This shows that the law-enforcement agencies are being used to protect the interests of terrorist groups or other vested groups. This is the dangerous situation, which now prevails in Bangladesh. Article 2: Are political parties contributing to the process of establishing the rule of law in Bangladesh, as they promised? Professor Anu Muhammad: The political parties in Bangladesh do not contribute to the process of establishing the rule of law. Their role is the exact opposite. When a political party assumes governmental power, their immediate target is to accumulate as much money as they can as quickly as they can. Their next target is to send the acquired money abroad as fast as possible. If the rule of law existed in Bangdalesh, they would not be able to do this so easily and so quickly. As a result, they concentrate on illegally appropriating assets thus multiplying the resources within their disposal. When there is a regime change, the next party takes the process of looting to a higher stage from their predecessors. In the course of such consecutive plundering, regimes destroy all institutions and administration systems. As days pass by, the gravity and number of bad deeds mount higher and higher. If the previous regime takes some 10 items, for example, the following party picks up 20 or more, while in the next phase, another takes away 50. Thus, the rate of appropriating public wealth is racing on faster than ever. Subsequently, the level of violence and terrorist actions escalates, hand in hand with the rate of looting the public wealth. Most significantly though, insecurities in the ordinary person’s life are on the rise, due to these conditions. Article 2: To improve the situation of the rule of law in Bangladesh, what suggestions do you have, and how could leaders motivate ordinary people to participate in actual nation building? Professor Anu Muhammad: All the people have been suffering from the absence of the rule of law. This includes the people at large, who support political parties like the Awami League and the BNP, plus the ordinary voter. Everybody is suffering. The small minority in power are the only beneficiaries of no rule of law. However, on the part of the people, there is a need to be realistic about their situation. They should reject their condition. They should reject the politics of power. They should banish the ‘godfathers’ from the political arena. They should work to take hold of their rightful power to reject these evil forces and conditions. I don’t see any other alternative. Article 2: Are there any other comments that you wish to add? Professor Anu Muhammad: I believe that in Bangladesh, those who plunder the people’s assets get to fulfill their dreams. But, they always want more. They want to hold on to power and do so through the use of violence. But, they are not immune to adverse psychological effects. They have fear within themselves. They are afraid of the people. To control this fear, they have to use and spread violence. On the other side, I see the possibilities that lie in the power and strength of the people. If that power and strength can be well-organized, the evil forces won’t be able to continue to exist – regardless of their power in spreading violence. The powerful people won’t be so powerful at all when the people stand together to resist them. There are numerous instances in some places in Bangladesh, where the vested violence-mongers attempted doing objectionable things, but were defeated by the people. At the end of the day, a people united together can defeat.