Bangladesh's interim government announced former PM Sheikh Hasina would be allowed to travel abroad for medical treatment on Monday. She is suffering from high blood pressure, as well as eye and ear problems. She has also been exempted from appearing in courts for hearings for the time being.
Former Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina, who was arrested last year on corruption charges, is suffering from eye and ear problems
Bangladesh’s military-backed interim government seems to have decided to let Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia leave jail in order to bring the main political parties back to the negotiating table ahead of elections planned for December.
The Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) recently declared a boycott of the so-called “dialogue” with the government, demanding that their leaders, both former prime ministers, be freed first.
Professor Syed Anwar Hosain from Dhaka University thought there was an obvious connection here: “To the best of my information, I can say that Sheikh Hasina has already instructed party stalwarts and the leaders to take part in the dialogue.”
“A situation involving the release of the two leaders, the top leaders, after so many months of detention in a special jail, a situation like this could not have arisen without a background deal with the government, involving the government and the political parties. There must be a deal behind the scene.”
This latest compromise comes as the government is becoming increasingly unpopular, not least because of a dramatic increase in food prices. This is in stark contrast to its early days.
When it declared an emergency in January 2007, after weeks of turmoil in Bangladesh, the decision was welcomed by many, remembered Faiz Abbas, South Asia researcher at Amnesty International.
“People are likely to say that the situation was really, really bad at that time. And what replaced it was greeted with a sigh of relief -- within civil society, within all the other dimensions of society.”
Right from the beginning, the government declared its intention to “clean up” Bangladeshi politics and fight corruption. At the time, Bangladesh was -- according to Transparency International -- the world’s most corrupt country.
But it soon became clear that the new administration enjoyed the military’s backing and would not be particularly gentle in its methods. Hundreds of thousands of people have since been jailed in several waves of mass arrests.
In 2007 alone, Amnesty International received reports of 400,000 people being arrested -- most of whom were later released. “Some of these prisoners have been detained for over a year without any charges being brought against them, only on the allegation that they have been involved in corruption,” said Abbas with concern.
The political parties claim that many arrests, including those of their top leaders, are politically motivated in order to destroy them. And indeed, the government certainly did want to change them, as Professor Syed Anwar Hosain explained:
“The government did start off very well by suggesting that all our political parties, at least the main ones, needed political reforms within. Because none of the political parties in Bangladesh is democratic from the inside. But so far, it has not been done either by the political parties, nor ensured by the government itself.”
The government had hoped that there would be splits and rebellions within the two major parties against the old leadership, but the party workers remained loyal to Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia.
Too late for reform
All of the few initial attempts to found new parties, including one by Nobel peace laureate Mohammad Younus, failed.
Now it is too late, thinks Syed Anwar Hosain: “The rise, growth and development of political parties need a long period of gestation, which we don’t have at the moment because the election is only round the corner.”
With elections planned for December, it is unlikely that a totally “new”, democratic leadership might suddenly emerge in Bangladesh. So far, the military-backed government has failed to deliver on its reform promises.