Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Time for Soft Talk with Myanmar is Over


An OIC (Organization of Islamic Countries) delegation, which included foreign ministers and senior officials from its member states Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Djibouti, and Bangladesh recently visited Myanmar. It was led by the OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. The OIC delegation pressed for unhindered access of humanitarian aid to all affected people and communities, including Rakhine (Arakan) State, without any discrimination. They also stressed the need for clarifying misconceptions and misunderstandings on both sides and for building mutual trust and interfaith community harmony.

As has become the norm in this mostly Buddhist country that has come to signify the den of intolerance and hatred of our time, the OIC delegation was, however, met by angry demonstrators, esp. in the Rakhine state, which has seen more than its share of ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minorities. Some 3,000 protesters, led by Buddhist monks, staged their demonstrations in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe (formerly called Akyab) as they toured camps housing mostly displaced Rohingya refugees as well as some ethnic Rakhines and met local officials. The delegation’s visit to Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon on Friday also saw nearly 1,000 people, carrying "No OIC" placards.

The protests of this kind - organized by the members of the central government and local administration, Buddhist politicians and monks - are nothing new. These are a show of defiance against everything noble and humane. These dark, hideous and savage forces of Theravada Buddhism want to hide their monumental crimes against humanity and want to starve to death the remnants of the Muslim minority who mostly now live in abject poverty as Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in squalid camps.

Last year, the Buddhist government similarly did not allow the fact finding missions from international agencies, including the OIC, to tour the ethnically cleansed territories. It also did not allow opening up an OIC office in the Rakhine state. In the midst of government-sponsored protest demonstrations, the OIC had to pack up and leave, which only emboldened the savage regime and its supporters within the apartheid state to repeat their crimes against the Rohingya – who, according to the UN, are the most persecuted people on earth – and other Muslim minorities.

So the plight of the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities continues unabated inside apartheid Myanmar. In ethnic cleansing drives in this country, the victims are usually the Rohingyas and yet they end up in the prisons (and not the Buddhist marauders) overwhelmingly. A peaceful demonstration may cost them their lives in this Mogher Mulluk. The same security forces which did nothing to stop lynching of Muslim victims have no moral qualms in killing them unprovoked for staging a peaceful demonstration.

As has been noted by the Associated Press on November 24, 600 Rohingya Muslim men were recently thrown in jail in this remote corner of Myanmar during a ruthless security crackdown that followed sectarian violence, and among one in 10 who didn't make it out alive.

An eyewitness described that when she visited the jail, the cells were crammed with men, hands chained behind their backs, several stripped naked. Many showed signs of torture. Her husband, Mohammad Yasim, was doubled over, vomiting blood, his hip bone shattered. "We were all crying so loudly the walls of the prison could have collapsed," the 40-year-old widow said. "They killed him soon after that," she said of her husband. Her account was corroborated by her father, her 10-year-old son and a neighbor. "Other prisoners told us soldiers took his corpse and threw it in the forest." "We didn't even have a chance to see his body," she said.

In early November, three Rohingyas were killed. One Rohingya man was murdered by Rakhine villagers when collecting firewood in the forest. Another two were killed and four wounded after riot police opened fire during clashes. In Pauktaw Township the situation remained tense with many of the remaining Rohingya villagers being forced into an IDP camp allegedly for their own security by army and police. Many are afraid because the camp, funded by an international aid group, is very close to a village with only Buddhist Rakhines.

Buddhist security forces have been allowed to operate with impunity. As a result of such brutality, unfathomed discrimination by state authorities and their obvious collusion with the Rakhine (Magh) extremists towards never-ending pogroms life has only gotten worse for Rohingya. They see no way out but to board rickety boats for Bangladesh, or make the perilous journey to Malaysia. Many have already drowned trying when their boats capsized.

In spite of Myanmar’s Government’s zealous efforts to hide its complicity and crimes against humanity, truth has been leaking out. Consider, for instance, the testimony of Mr.  Thomas H. Andrews, President and CEO of United to End Genocide on September 19, 2013 in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. In that, he provided his first-hand account of visits made in Burma. He travelled to Rakhine State in the west where he visited eight IDP camps and spoke with dozens of desperate IDPs. He also travelled to the central and northern area of Mandalay and the city of Meiktila where he visited neighborhoods and met with many people and families who continue to live in fear and desperation. He also came across Muslims in Rangoon whose fear and intimidation was on the rise in Myanmar.

During his trip, Mr. Andrews was blocked by security forces at roadside checkpoints from visiting IDP camps. The reason was clear. They did not want him to hear what had happened to the Muslim community inside Myanmar. Nevertheless, the signs of destruction were everywhere and he was able to see burnt out buildings and destroyed Mosques, meet with those who had to literally run for their lives after watching their homes and everything that they had worked for destroyed. They were living in abject poverty in makeshift camps wanting desperately to return and rebuild their village but also utterly terrified by the Buddhist mobs, Myanmar security forces and police even more. 

Throughout his travels, Mr. Andrews heard stories of systematic discrimination, isolation and blanket oppression where every aspect of life of members of the Muslim minority was controlled. People described living in constant fear of violence within their communities and intimidation by authorities. The right to move from one village – or even one street – to another, the right to earn a living, to get married, to have more than two children and even the right to live with one’s own family was often dependent on the permission of authorities and most often only after the payment of bribes. 

He found that hate speech – a precursor of genocide – was prevalent in Burma. Fueling it was a systematic, well organized and well funded campaign of hatred and bigotry known as “969”. It followed a well established pattern:

1)  Campaign organizers arrive in a village, distributing DVDs, pamphlets and stickers that warn Buddhists that their religion and their country were in peril as Muslims seek to eliminate both and establish a Muslim caliphate;

2)  Villages are invited to a special community event to hear a message from venerable Buddhist monks about how they can protect their families, nation and religion;

3)  Radical nationalist monks arrive at the designated time and deliver fiery hate-filled speeches warning that Muslims are plotting to destroy Buddhism and take control of the nation. Villages are encouraged to support the movement by signing petitions, and displaying “969” stickers on their homes and businesses. They are encouraged to only patronize those who displayed the stickers and boycott any Muslim owned or operated business. 

As I have documented earlier, the hateful rhetoric of these radical Rakhine monks and the “969” campaign is ominously reminiscent of the hateful propaganda directed at the Tutsi population and their sympathizers in the lead up and during the Rwandan genocide, let alone the Nazi-led Holocaust more than half a century earlier. Demanding the expulsion of all Rohingya from Burma, these monks urge the local population to sever all relations with not only the Rohingya, but also with what are described as their “sympathizers”. Labeled as national traitors, those Buddhists who associate with Rohingya Muslims also face intimidation and the threat of violence. 

Gregory Stanton, President of Genocide Watch, documented eight stages of genocide – Classification, Symbolization, Dehumanization, Organization, Polarization, Preparation, Extermination and Denial. Human rights watchers have long concluded that the Rohingyas are facing genocide in Myanmar, and this crime must be stopped.

Last week (Tuesday, November 19) the U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee passed a resolution urging Myanmar to give the stateless Rohingya minority equal access to citizenship and to crack down on Buddhist violence against them and other Muslims. In its response, an official of the Myanmar government said that it will not allow itself to be pressured by a U.N. resolution. Presidential spokesman Ye Htut insisted in a posting on his Facebook page that the government does not recognize that there is a group called Rohingya, referring to them instead as Bengalis.

As I have noted above, such defiance by the rogue Myanmar regime is not new and unless checked vehemently it will continue to defy the world community. The elimination of Muslims there has become a national project enjoying widespread support from Nobel disgrace Suu Kyi to president Thein Sein. Thus, the UN has to go beyond passing soft resolutions that don’t bite the rogue regime.

A reading of history shows that genocide succeeds when state sovereignty blocks international responsibility to protect its persecuted group. It continues due to lack of authoritative international institutions to predict it and call it as such. It happens due to lack of ready rapid response forces to stop it and lack of political will to peacefully prevent it and to forcefully intervene to stop it.

Since founding of the UN, at least 45 genocides and politicides have taken place in our world resulting in deaths of some 70 million people. It is a shameful record that needs to be improved.

The time for soft talk with Myanmar is over.  It is high time for the UN Security Council to authorize armed intervention in Myanmar by a UN force under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter. The Mandate must include protection of Rohingya civilians and humanitarian workers and a No Fly Zone over the Rakhine state. The Rules of Engagement must be robust and include aggressive prevention of killing. The major military powers (e.g., the USA, Russia and the UK) must provide leadership, logistics, airlift, communications, and financing. If Myanmar will not permit entry, its UN membership should be suspended. Myanmar’s leaders should be tried in an international criminal court for committing and aiding crimes against humanity. Nothing short of these will be able to stop these savage criminals. Sooner the better!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thoughts on Bangladesh - 6


Last week, I was in the port city of Khulna, located in the south-west corner of Bangladesh. It is a major city and is not too far from the Sundarbans. It was an unsafe time to visit the port city of Khulna, or for that matter any place within Bangladesh, given the political unrest that has been wrecking havoc inside Bangladesh since last month. It is a constitutional crisis, created by the politicians – both in power and opposition, who have no desire or so it seems towards resolving the problem peacefully. Violent demonstrations, including setting vehicles on fire, derailing trains, obstructing major roads and highways with everything imaginable, let alone throwing firebomb and attacking anyone on the streets, including police and ordinary commuters have become the new norm these days.
So, it was a risky decision to go out of Chittagong. But I wanted to go since I have not visited the city since 1994. My mom’s family comes from Khulna, and many of my cousins still live in the city. The city, unfortunately, does not have any airport to fly into. As such, road communication often is the preferred alternative requiring only about 10-12 hours reaching Khulna from Chittagong.
My brother-in-law Bahar and I bought bus tickets just minutes after the opposition-called 60-hour long strike had ended. The fear was that the opposition alliance would call its second strike within days, and if we don’t leave soon, we may not be able to get to Khulna anytime soon. As expected, therefore, there were lots of traffic on the road, and we arrived in Khulna almost five hours late. The road condition via Aricha ferry route, especially after Jessore, was terrible and painful for any passenger. The bus driver, however, seems to know all the short-cut tricks to by-pass other trucks and vehicles, and made good use of his knowledge of the roads and highways to shorten the travel time. It was tiring nonetheless.
My cousin Sheikh M. Nurruzzaman Manju and nephew Ruhit came with their car to receive us at the bus terminal. We decided to stay with another cousin Sheikh Nurul Haque Kochi who lived in the home that belonged to his parents - my maternal aunt and her husband, both now deceased. The cousin brothers are successful businessmen and live near Haji Mohsin Road, named after the legendary philanthropist of the British era. Their homes are all close by allowing Bahar and I to chat and dine freely whenever we wanted.
Since I have not visited my birthplace, Bashtali, located in Rampal thana in Bagerhat (which was before part of Khulna district) for more than three decades, my plan was to visit the place next day, which was Friday. After a good rest on Thursday night, Bahar and I left for Bashtali in Manju’s van. His wife and Kochi also joined in. On the way, we paid tolls and crossed over the Rupsha Bridge which has been built not too long ago.  Years ago when I visited Bashtali with my mom, I remember we had to cross the river by boat or launch (small steam boat) and then take a very slow-moving train (probably the slowest in the world) to reach Bagerhat town. And then we would take a launch to ultimately reach Bashtali – my birthplace. One time, we missed the last launch that had left the ferry, and we had to take a boat instead which took a few hours to reach Bashtali.
Obviously, those days are long gone in this part of Bangladesh. The road communication between Khulna city and Rampal thana and once-remote villages and small towns has significantly improved. It takes only a fraction of the old time - now less than two hours - to go from Khulna city to Bashtali. My mother says much of the credit for such communication miracle connecting Khulna city to other parts of the district goes it to its former Mayor – Alhajj Abdul Khaleq Talukdar (of Awami League).
It was really a very nice, pleasant ride all the way to Bashtali. On our way, we stopped by a dairy shop (which makes jilapi and mishty or ros golla – a type of popular sweets product made out of milk, which is a popular snack or dessert served in Bangladesh) in Rampal and bought few kilos of various types of sweets. The shop owner is a Hindu who is known to my cousins very well and was nice to have us taste his sweets before buying.
We then stopped by an orphanage and a madrasa in Islamabad – Islamabad Siddiquia Fadil (Degree) Madrasa, which had enjoyed hefty donations and support from my mom and my two cousins – Manju and Kochi. On the way to the madrasa, we were greeted by many students – aged six and above- who had lined up along the road. The ex-principal, Abdul Matin Quddusi, a learned scholar, gave a very heartrending speech on the history of the madrasa, one of the oldest in the entire region that was started by a saint - the Pir of Furfura, and as to how it struggled to function all these years without any government support, and how timely my mom’s financial supports were at its crunch time to keep it running. He also relayed how he had met my parents in Chittagong many years ago, and that my mother was the first of the university graduates with an M.A. degree from the region. He praised the donations she and her (late) elder sister (Manju and Kochi’s mom) had made, and requested that we, as children of such philanthropist parents, should continue their noble practices, without which the madrasa and the attached orphanage would have long been closed down. When requested, I delivered a brief speech in which I urged the young students to become true human beings for I felt that we are trying to become everything but good human beings that care and are mindful of their obligations before God and His creation.
After taking some group pictures we headed out for Bashtali. On our way, we stopped by another dairy shop, owned by a Hindu, in Gilatala and bought several kilos of various types of sweets. It was obvious that the sweets-makings cottage industry in rural areas continue to be owned and operated mostly by Hindus. 
The trip to Bashtali from Gilatala was a very short one, and after arriving in front of my grandpa’s home – an old brick home, which is almost in ruins now, we freshened up and walked to the newly rebuilt mosque in the village. It was Friday, the time for Jumu’ah prayer. As we, the four of us, male members, walked inside the mosque, everyone’s eyes stared at us since Bahar and I are newcomers to this mosque. The prayer leader, Imam, had expected our visit to the place, and requested that I give a brief talk before he delivered khutbah (the Friday sermon). I was not prepared but got up on my feet and delivered a small message on the importance of being truthful.
After the prayer service, we were given a tour of the mosque premises, which houses a school and were apprised of the progress made in various areas there including expansion capacity for prayer services. My cousin Al-hajj Zillur Rahman Chowdhury had contributed heftily for this mosque. My mother also paid for its water supply with construction of deep tube wells and an ablution area. The locals were very appreciative of such donations for the mosque.
An uncle of mine, who is my mom’s cousin, and continues to live there, invited several members of the congregation to eat at his family home. He has been instrumental in overlooking some of the projects there. The local union chairman vowed to provide all help for the on-going projects there that were financed by our families.
After a seven-course lunch (without counting the sweet items), I walked around the buildings in the Chowdhury Lodge – which belonged to my grandpa, meeting some of my relatives. Some of them came from nearby places to meet me there. Many of their family members have moved away to cities or are now settled overseas, and the once very prosperous family home - has very little to show of its past glory these days. It was sad for me to see this change. Others that were once poor and worked as laborers for my grandpa seem to have prospered quite well. I noticed a beautiful two-story home nearby, constructed recently by a doctor, who now works in Dhaka. His parents were poor and my mother helped him financially for his education. It was good to see how he has been able to do good for his family members left behind.
I also noticed that most locals were involved with shrimp cultivation and not as much with rice cultivation. This part of the country, which is low-lying delta area, used to have some of the finest soil producing bumper crops year round. Now salinity has adversely affected such cultivation, and people for a plethora of reasons have moved to shrimp cultivation. Acres of land are now leased by the lobster and shrimp marketers for its cultivation for a very small amount of fee paid to the landowners. As such the old big land-owners, unless they got into this new trade, are becoming poor while a new wealthy class is emerging fast. Many of them live in big cities and don’t even visit the villages to see the impact of this shrimp business. But even then I was approached by only two persons for some monetary help. Those who have become very poor did not feel comfortable raising such issues.
Motor driven easy-bikes (something like a tri-cycle with open roof seats), and not rickshaws, now carry people around the roads. My mother donated nearly a dozen of such motorized transports to the poor in the area.
After those acquaintance meetings, we walked to the newly built Barrister Saidur Rahman Girls’ Madrasa, which has been named after my late uncle (mejo mama), who was a very famous barrister during Pakistan times. He was the first one from the region to study in Presidency College under Calcutta University in Kolkata during the British era before heading out for London for his Bar-at-Law degree. He was a contemporary of Justice Abu Said Chowdhury, who later became the President of the newly independent Bangladesh. I was told that my uncle was appointed an ambassador to the UK, which he could not fulfill because of having an English wife. On April 4, 1964 he was in the Radio Pakistan office, Dhaka, to deliver a scheduled speech on human rights when he suffered a heart attack, and later died before he could be admitted to the hospital. He was only 40 when he died leaving behind two sons who now live in the UK.
Mejo mama also taught law at Dhaka University and was recognized as a great teacher.  I remember him as a very handsome man who was extremely popular and well respected for his personality and work. One of his juniors (legal assistant), Latifur Rahman, later became the Chief Justice of Bangladesh and head of a caretaker government. His body was taken to Bashtali and buried there. [My choto mama (another uncle – younger to my mom) Barrister Razzaq Rahman (now deceased), who had returned from UK not too long ago, sat in the same chamber in Malibagh, Dhaka to continue the legal practice.]
This madrasa, built in mejo mama’s name, has a residential hostel for the girls and we were met my some of the students there. My parents and cousin – Zillu bhaijan (Zillur Rahman Chowdhury) have been the financiers for this project. There we met Zillu bhai’s wife who supervises the facility. (At the time of our visit, Zillu bhai was in Khulna city and could not meet us. We later met him in Khulna.)
In the nearby plot, my mother is financing a Health Complex project so that trained doctors could attend to villagers there, and that way the patients need not go to Bagerhat town or Khulna city for their primary healthcare needs. This project is in its early stage and may take at least a couple more years before it finishes with built structures. My two visiting cousins and the resident uncle are overseeing this project.
Next, we prayed for forgiveness for the departed souls of our deceased relatives buried in the family graveyard, which is located in front of the Girls’ madrasa. Then we headed for the shore area – the ghat (in the local term) – on the Kumarkhali River where launches once used to ferry people around from other parts, including Bagerhat. Now with all the silt deposits in the river bed, I am told that even those launches don’t navigate in these shallow waters. We visited the market place on the river front and then visited Manju’s father-in-law’s home who lived nearby. His wife was resting there while we were busy in our grandpa’s place. After a short stopover there we visited his brother-in-law’s home who lived closely. He showed us his garden which grows all varieties of fruits.
After sunset, we headed for Khulna city, and arrived in Lulu’s home in the city before the time for Esha (night) prayer. Her mom (Sufi khala) and my mom are first cousins, and she had invited us to have our dinner at her home. Her husband, before his retirement, used to work in Chittagong and live in our six-story house, Aranika, as a tenant. They have moved back to Khulna city to be close to my aunt – Sufi khala. It was good seeing them both with their daughter and grand-son there. Although Lulu had prepared a hefty meal for all of us, our stomach was full, and we could not eat much and had to beg excuse of the generous hosts. Then we stopped by Mohsin mama’s home. He is another of my mom’s cousin (uncle of Lulu) who also lives in Khulna city. There we dropped off his mother who had traveled with us all the way from Bashtali. Then we dropped off at Kochi’s home to take rest for the night. It was a well spent trip to my birthplace. I took plenty of pictures to later share with my mom and other relatives.
Within the next two days, I met every other first and second cousin that still lives in Khulna city. And everywhere I went, they wanted to serve us hefty meal, which I had to decline politely in most cases for my stomach had no extra capacity for overeating. It was joyous moment everywhere nonetheless. I could not recognize the new faces that have emerged in many of those families.
Everywhere I moved inside the city, except the vegetable and fish market areas, it looked impressively clean. Unlike many parts of Dhaka and Chittagong, vendors did not vend their products on the foot paths, blocking people’s path. I did not see garbage piling up either on the footpaths or streets. From my cousin’s home, I could recognize the reason - why. Every day, cleaning workers from the city municipality would knock on the doors of residents to collect their trash and carry it away in their carts, something that I have failed to see in most parts of either Dhaka or Chittagong. Khulna city is the cleanest city of Bangladesh that I have seen. It could serve as a model to be easily copied by other more prosperous cities. (I am also told that Rajshahi is similarly very clean. But I have not been to Rajshahi in decades since my BUET days, and have no way of comparing it with Khulna.)
Khulna does not have commuting problem with road-jams which are common in Chittagong and Dhaka. Its inner city roads are not crowded by trucks and buses or even motor vehicles which make it easy to walk around or take a safe ride in rickshaws and taxis. But the rickshaw seats there were comparatively narrower to those found in either Chittagong or Dhaka. The real estate development within the city seems also well managed, and nothing like those found in either Chittagong or Dhaka. I felt that if there were a place for I to retire in Bangladesh one day, this city definitely would be my choice to do so.
I wish I had enough time to spend few more days with my cousins in Khulna. But the pre-election time political turmoil simply did not allow that luxury. The opposition alliance had called for an 84 hour long strike soon after we had arrived in Khulna, and we had to find some means to return. Bus journey was out of question, not only for the suffering I endured coming in, but it was unsafe. The criminal elements within the opposition alliance have been attacking the bus riders, setting the buses to flames. A plane trip to either Chittagong or Dhaka would involve first going to Jessore, where the nearest airport is located, but it would involve taking a long ride by bus or personal car or taxi to the airport, which was not possible during the time of a strike. Strikers simply didn’t like anyone taking such rides anywhere and have attacked violently and mercilessly those risk takers. So, a train ride seems to be the only option left open for us. It was not safe either since strikers have uprooted rail lines derailing trains in various parts of the country. We had to take that risk.
Unfortunately, we found out that there was no direct route from Khulna to Chittagong. We could take the night-time Sundarbans Express which would bring us to Dhaka early next morning. And there from we could take another train or plane to Chittagong. But again the plane journey was not feasible, since the airports are located far away from the heart of the city, and even if one were to arrive at the destination, the road trip to home could not have been safe in a taxi either.
Getting a train ticket is not easy these days because of all such considerations. Fortunately, Bahar was able to manage two tickets for us. After saying goodbyes to our loved ones in Khulna, we took a rickshaw ride at night to the train station. It was in the middle of the strike period, so a trip by car or taxi was unsafe. My two cousins – Manju and Kochi - also came to see us off. After arriving at the train station, we learned that there was a three hour delay for our train to start because of a derailment accident nearby. The police inspector in charge at the rail station was known to Bahar, who graciously allowed us to rest in his office.
While we were resting there, we heard the sound of a bomb blast nearby and were informed that the nearby police station had been attacked by the criminal elements of the opposition alliance which had called in the strike. It was embarrassing for the Officer-in-Charge there to admit that his own police station had been bombed, so he denied such to the inquiring members of the Rapid Action Battalion. Afraid of being officially rebuked for a lousy job to protecting its own station and blocked from any potential promotion later on, he preferred lying! That was easy and convenient for him.
Waiting is always difficult, especially for me. I would arrive at a place earlier than be late. As such, we had arrived at the train station half an hour earlier than the scheduled time, and now we have to pass three hours and a half there. Not an easy task! So, to pass our time, we started chatting with the police inspector who had also enough time to chat with us. He told us of his experience visiting parts of India by train for a health related problem he had. He is fully cured now. He informed how difficult it was to procure a train ticket for long distance travel inside India. A traveler must book those tickets at least a week in advance. However, with a hefty commission (bribe) paid to agents, tickets could be procured there the next day, after waiting for 24 hours. The services offered inside the train, I was told, were superior to those found in Bangladesh. I wish one of the days I would have that opportunity to visit India. The only memory I have of India is when I visited Bahrampur area of West Bengal, located on the other side of Padma River, soon after the liberation war, as a team member of an under-18 college cricket team, which was the best in the Rajshahi Division. Our cadet college team had the best record in the division. 
I asked Mr. Shah Alam, the police officer, why Jessore seemed to have more industries these days than Khulna in the post-liberation area. He told us about a Mafia Don – like character, named Ershad Sikder, who had terrorized the city for years until he was killed in the May of 2004 after found guilty of multiple murders. He was the most notorious of serial killers in Bangladeshi history that had enjoyed political support from all the major parties. No one could dare to do business in Khulna without his blessings in the 1980s and the 1990s.
Ershad Sikder was a porter who once worked in the jetty to later become their leader. He ultimately controlled the entire labor market in shipping, rail and transportation sectors. He demanded a specific percentage to be paid to him for all those service sectors. Anyone daring to challenge his authority or refusing to pay his demand would be executed by him, and sometimes thrown down to the river.
Even the government officers, including divisional commissioner, police super and others were afraid of Ershad Sikder. He would buy their influence by showering them with appropriate gifts. His mantra was – everyone has a price with which he/she could be bought. And he used that mantra religiously on everyone important, even a police constable or rail guard was not ignored. Those who did not fit in were summarily eliminated by him personally. Surrounded always by musclemen, he was a terror figure recognized and feared by all – big or small. Even government officers would seek his help on their personal problems or disputes.
According to the court records, Sikder amassed millions of taka by criminal muscle power, and then used that money to buy political influence. His lavishly decorated mansion in the city and his business establishments were frequented by the leaders of all major political parties. The politicians liked him more because he had a sizable private force, equipped with illegal weapons.
He first joined the Jatiya Party of former military ruler Hussein Muhammad Ershad and became a council member of the Khulna City Corporation in the late 1980s. When the president and his first wife would visit the city, they would be seen meeting Ershad Sikder, whom the president called his ‘adopted son’. Just imagine!
After the fall of the Ershad regime and restoration of democracy in the early 1990s, Ershad Sikder joined the then governing party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. But he swapped sides and joined the Awami League when it came to power a few years afterwards.
But his political mentors in the Awami League refused to back him when he killed one of their own men, Khalid Hossain, following his arrest in 1999. Sikder's own bodyguard also betrayed him and gave a vivid description to the trial court of the gruesome way in which he killed the young political activist. A witness to the murder told that he beat Khalid Hossain mercilessly, and at one point jumped on his chest, breaking all his bones. His bodyguard also testified that Sikder was responsible for more than 20 other murders.
Ershad Sikder’s honeymoon with politics came to an abrupt end when he was found guilty in that well-publicized case. He was later hanged to death in 2004.
As we have been attentively listening to the story of Khulna’s Don our train whistled into the station. My cousins had said good-bye to us earlier in the middle of the story since it was getting quite late at night for them to get back to their family. We thanked Mr. Alam for his recollection of the Ershad Sikder story, and show of kindness and then embarked on the train. There was no further delay on our way, and we arrived three hours late in Dhaka the next day.
In its May 2004 report, a BBC commentator said, “Ershad Sikder's rise from poor labourer to rich man in Khulna symbolises the dreadful state of Bangladeshi politics.”
Well, that sums up the politics of Bangladesh. Probably, very little has changed in the last ten years. Politics and business continues to be dominated by those untouchables!

To be continued >>>

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Thoughts on Bangladesh - 5

It is said that if you want to find out about a city look at its manholes. Why – manholes? Well, those manholes probably tell us quite a bit about the overall health of a city. If those are missing, we can assume that (1) the city municipality may be financially insolvent, i.e., it does not have enough fund for emergency needs, e.g., to replace the missing manholes promptly, or (2) theft is quite common in that city, i.e., it is unsafe and that life is insecure for anyone living in that city, or (3) the police force is inadequate and/or ineffective to stopping such petty crimes in that city, or (4) the city dwellers are nonchalant about such crimes, or (5) the city dwellers, in general, are very poor, etc., etc.
If you are looking for missing manholes there are plenty to be found in any major city of Bangladesh. There are not only missing manholes that are death-traps for many pedestrians and commuters, which often remain uncovered for years, but potholes are also quite common in many roads and highways to both slow down the traffic and add to the repair cost of vehicle owners. These observations are sure to frustrate many who know that the country has made significant economic progress in the last four decades bettering the quality of life for most people. For example, I am told that Bangladesh has made significant strides in primary education, basic or primary health and sanitation.
Thus, we are forced to ask: why do such problems exist? In my opinion, one of the major causes is corruption, which is quite rampant in Bangladesh. Every sector in this country seems plagued by this chronic disease, which has transformed Bangladesh into a perpetual leaking faucet. A significant portion of the budget leaks out, i.e., is wasted, in the form of bribe and corruption.
Consider, for instance, if there is a budget of 1 billion taka for a road construction project, I am told that a minimum of 250 million taka may simply leak out and be pocketed by others. Of the remainder amount left for the real work, the contractor must take its own cut of profit minus all the expenses. As such, often times, less than 50% of the allotted budget amount is spent on such projects and low quality work becomes the ultimate outcome. Such jobs lead to cracks and potholes within months of the construction job, especially so after the rainy season, demanding frequent repair works, let alone adding to the suffering of the general public. But such potholes are almost never patched up or covered up promptly to avoid more expensive full-repair job later. I am told this negligence is deliberate: such potholes left unrepaired start the domino effect of triggering new funding for resurfacing of the road. That way, again all those involved with the project – from approving the fund to providing the finished job – can get rich! One may argue that the process helps cash flow and eventually benefits the society with circulation of money. But, at whose expense, may I ask?
More annoying to me is to see that in many such road construction works, no provision has been made for water drainage. This is inexcusable in a country with an annual rainfall of nearly hundred inches. If adequate provisions for removal of rainwater are made the life of many of the roads and highways in Bangladesh could be significantly prolonged, saving precious money and time for all. I am sure this fact is not unknown to any engineer, esp. those civil engineers involved in such road projects; so I am forced to believe that such provisions are deliberately ignored to allow the vicious cycle to continue.
Many municipalities around the globe keep aside a fraction of their budget for such repair jobs, let alone for emergency needs. I shall be surprised if city corporations in Bangladesh have left no such provisions!
As I hinted above, corruption is very rampant in Bangladesh. Not a single sector touching the public life is immune from this curse. There seems to be a race for becoming filthy rich at everyone else’s expense.
Consider, e.g., the case of education. There are now as many privately managed schools as there are government-run schools. Profit making is the primary reason for the existence of most of these private schools. I don’t mind the fact that for successful sustainment of anything, one needs to make it profitable. But when profit becomes the sole motivation, everyone suffers. I was simply shocked to learn that not only must a parent with kids going to schools from the first grade to the tenth grade pay monthly tuition fees it must also pay a hefty re-admission fee every year, which can run anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of taka. When I was a student in primary schools, many years ago, there were not that many private or non-government schools. But nowhere was such a policy of readmission fee; nowadays it has become rather the norm and not an exception!
What is quite disquieting is that the teachers in most of these private schools remain very low paid while most owners are making hefty profits! For example, a high school teacher with a B.A. degree in a privately-run school may be paid only 2,000 taka per month, and must now depend on other sources of income to survive. Usually, that income comes in the form of private tuition, which has become rather popular these days. For every subject there is a teacher providing extra tuition beyond the class hours. What is even horrifying: a student may be deliberately given poor grade by a teacher if he/she has not enrolled in the teacher’s coaching class! My niece Tanita was a brilliant student all her student life. Yet she could not take the scholarship exam in her 5th grade from her school simply because her school teacher won’t let her take the exam for not having enrolled in his coaching class. She eventually took the exam from another school district and got the scholarship. Hers is not an exceptional case, but rather quite common. And this is really scary within the educational system, which cannot afford such extortion from a teacher.
Many of the successful teachers (we should probably call them businesspersons), providing such coaching services at home or in rented places, are known to make hundreds of thousands of taka per month. But if you ask them - how much tax are they paying - don’t be surprised to learn that they pay nothing.
When I asked a school principal who happens to own it about the justification of paying such low salaries to her teaching staff she told me that this was done to avoid overcharging the student’s fee, and thus to remain competitive with other private schools, and that teachers are expected to make up their losses in income via such coaching classes. What she failed to understand was the implication of the entire system. The quality of education during class hours provided in all such institutes – government or non-government alike in which a parallel coaching system exists - is going downhill. Students there are learning hardly anything, but are told to come to the after-school-hour coaching classes to ‘really’ learn the subject matter!
Such extra costs, almost extorted, unfortunately are becoming a terrible burden for most parents who have school going kids. If they have fixed income, and are honest in their profession, it is almost impossible to cope with, and must find other sources of income to make-up the cost of education. Many are forced to take bribes in their own professions, while a lucky few with immigration opportunities are settling overseas where education is free up to the 12th grade. This latter case should not surprise us. I know of many such cases in which parents making reasonably good salaries were forced to immigrate to the USA so that they could avoid paying hefty readmission charges and tuition fees for their children.
With hundreds of thousands of students appearing in various exams these days, it is important that a student do extremely well – GPA 5 Golden – to be even considered eligible for taking an admission test in government-run universities in Bangladesh. Other aspirants must, therefore, attend private universities, which may cost anywhere from 300,000 taka to a million taka for the 4-year program. At the end of an expensive university education there is no guarantee of a good job waiting for the graduates since the job sector has not kept up the pace with student population.
Many of the newly rich executives running companies and corporations behave like hardcore capitalists of the early 20th century that care less about what their employees make. I was simply shocked to learn that a graduate with a BBA degree and a high GPA score from a prestigious university program was offered a paltry salary of Tk. 7,000 (less than 100 USD) per month at an entry level position. The MD of the corporation, an old friend of mine, by the way, was making over 20,000 USD monthly (a large sum of money even in the US). There was no moral bite felt by the employer that the salary offer won’t have even covered the cost of commuting to the office by taxi! How about if the employee were to rent an apartment? How would she survive with that salary? (She decided not to take the job, and instead continued her education towards an MBA. She is now settled in the USA with her husband who is doing doctoral studies in computer science.) Many are forced to take bribe simply to survive! It may sound odd, but that is the reality for many folks in Bangladesh.
As I see it, the system here in Bangladesh is forcing many to emigrate out of the country for a plethora of reasons including corruption. Those working as temporary workers (mostly with no college education) in the Middle East and Malaysia or Singapore may one day return to Bangladesh, but those with higher degrees from universities or technical knowhow, which this country needs badly to move up in the economic ladder, may never return because of corruption.
In my BUET (the MIT of Bangladesh) class of 1977, 80% of those who graduated with a first class are now settled overseas. Most of them went for higher education leading to M.S. and/or Ph.D. degree(s) and were absorbed by the system in their adopted countries. Most of the universities inside Bangladesh, thus, don’t have their best students as their faculty members any more. In my department, for instance, my classmate who had a much lower grade is now a faculty member there. Five others who had better grades are overseas. And this trend is common in every department, and has been going on for the last few decades.
With all the best students gone, the universities inside Bangladesh naturally now must run with what is left behind – the fifth, sixth, seventh best! This brain-drain phenomenon is sad, but a reality with Bangladesh today! In spite of much talk the government has failed to attract those talents back home. As demonstrated in places like Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia without such returning expatriates it is virtually impossible these days to make the transition to a developed country.
What is also problematic, in most of the prestigious government-run universities in Bangladesh research has taken a back seat! A faculty is promoted for years of academic teaching (and political affiliation may also help!) and not published research work. Many of the professors don’t have a single paper (beyond their doctoral work) published in any peer reviewed international journal. As such, the gap with the rest of the world in advances made in any given field is increasingly widening. Consequently, many of the science and technology professors are still intellectually locked in their doctoral training years and have no knowledge of the advances made in their own fields ever since.
While the pay-scale of faculty members in government-run universities has increased significantly in the last three decades, it is still quite below those offered in private run universities. As a result, many faculty members serving in government-run universities now take long leave of absence to work for higher-paying private universities. Many run side businesses to better their financial condition.
When I was a student at BUET, students from many parts of Asia would be part of the foreign student community. Such was the case also with many of Bangladesh’s medical colleges. Nowadays, Bangladeshi students are going to those countries. In this way, not only Bangladesh is losing a source of income but a fraction of its hard-earned foreign exchange is spent to pay for such undergrad education overseas.
Politics is also ruining the university campus atmosphere. Faculty members run in the senate elections in panels that are distinctly politically affiliated. Promotions and hiring practices have naturally been compromised. Student politics has also become poisonous and extremely violent. Strikes have become also quite common in campuses, thus, delaying graduation of students, sometimes by two years!
A fraction of the students, affiliated with student groups that dominate the student union bodies, has found unethical and illegal means – e.g., tender, extortion - to make more money than they would ever make by graduating. As such, many of the student leaders have become professional students, thugs and killers these days, and not real students. They run criminal cadres that are responsible for all kinds of heinous crimes including murder in and outside university campuses. Many of them are also used as musclemen for political parties and politicians. So vicious has this nexus become that without such collaborations many politicians could not have gotten elected in their own areas. For one to win, it must feed those cadres.
Why such endemic sickness within the education sector when this country once prided itself of having Oxford and Cambridge-like universities of the East, and had produced towering geniuses like Drs. S. Bose and F.R. Khan?
Well, teaching ethics and morality – and walking the talk – may be the starting point to correct this grave problem – bottoms up. I am told that nowadays children don’t get any teaching on such matters in their primary schools, which was so common when I grew up as a child. If a society fails to instill such life-giving values to its young mind it is doomed to failure. And as studies have repeatedly shown the price of failure is worse than the price of gains made without such values. Let those who formulate educational policy of Bangladesh reflect on this time honored fact. The sooner the better!


To be continued >>>

Monday, November 4, 2013

New York Times article on Burma - comments

Dr Maung Zarni has written an article on Burma in the New York Times.
My letter to the New York Times is shown below:
Dear Editor,
I would like to thank the NY Times for publishing Maung Zarni's article on Myanmar's Drive for Peace. It shows clearly the ulterior motives of the current Thein Sein government, which is more interested in western investment, esp. in its minority resource-rich ethnic areas than true peace under a federal system of government. However, I am sad to see that Mr. Zarni has failed to mention the Rohingya minority of the Rakhine/Arakan state, which has been subject to consistent violent campaigns as documented by the Human Rights Watch, and considered rightly by the UN as one of the most at-risk minorities in the world.
President Thein Sein current has suggested that all Rohingyas should be relocated to a third country and refused to restore their citizenship cancelled in 1982, whereas the ancestors of the Rohingyas are the first settlers of the region. The article also fails to mention the Oil-Gas reserves of Burma, esp. the Burma-China's twin oil and gas pipelines, which originate from Rohingya minority state of Rakhine. This is where Rohingya property is being confiscated and land is being appropriated by the state. 
As rightly noted by Mr. Zarni, although on the eve of independence in 1948, the Burmese nationalist leaders promised that ethnic equality would be a cornerstone of the new Burma equality has remained elusive.Until the promise of equality and the vision of a federated union are genuinely pursued, the government’s offer of peace will have little effect.
Regards,
Habib Siddiqui



Saturday, November 2, 2013

My Two Cents on Bangladesh – Election 2014


Last week, I had the misfortune (and that is the only way I can describe it) of witnessing the effect of a country-wide strike (Hartal) in Bangladesh that was called by the opposition 18-party alliance, led by Madam Khaleda Zia’s BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party). The strike was for 60 hours and it was extremely violent. The opposition wanted a total closure of everything – all government offices, business centers, educational institutes, and even all forms of road and rail communication networks – totally paralyzing the country.
Protests of this kind are nothing new in Bangladesh and are a common feature, esp. during the election time. Bangladesh is scheduled to have a parliamentary election early next year. Public worries are around fairness of that election and the transfer of power. Although Bangladesh government has an Election Commission (EC) to ensure a fair election to take place the opposition alliance does not believe that it is neutral or would remain so during the important parliament election. This doubt is somewhat exasperating to the ruling party given the fact that in recently held municipal elections, the EC demonstrated its neutrality in which candidates affiliated with the ruling Awami League were defeated miserably. The opposition says that those municipal elections were more like baits used by the ruling party to draw the opposition alliance to accept the government proposal. It wants a caretaker government instead to conduct the election, more like what had been the norm in Bangladesh since 1991.
Interestingly, every time after the election since 1991, the incumbent party has lost which had accused that the election was unfair and hijacked by the caretaker government, which was biased in making sure that it lost. So, why this fallacy about hosting an election under a caretaker government when no matter how neutral it was and how fairly it may have been conducted the election process, the losers are always going to cry foul?
The ruling alliance of Sheikh Hasina does not want the next election to be held under a caretaker government and says that it wants to conduct it following the dictates of the constitution in ways that have become the norms in all democratic countries around the globe. That is, it wants to hold the election when it is in office, albeit under some restrictions imposed a priori by the EC, and not under a caretaker government. It has brought in constitutional amendments to justify its stand, which it says will avoid a repeat of 1/11. The problem is: the opposition alliance does neither trust in the sincerity of the ruling alliance nor the constitutional amendment.
Since no major political leader wants to compromise in this current political tug of war, street politics with corpses, sadly, has become the fate of this unfortunate nation of 154 million people, resulting in violent clashes, injuries and deaths, let alone suffering of the people.
In the last week’s 60-hour protest, nearly 20 individuals had died. A young girl lost her two eyes. The low-income day laborers, rickshaw pullers, and vendors could not work and suffered miserably. Some of them were beaten mercilessly by the members of the opposition parties who did not want them to work or go out. Trains were derailed, smashed and set on fire, injuring many and killing some. Buses, cars, trucks and taxis were set on fire. Some drivers were pulled out from their vehicles, beaten and killed. Even offices, shops and business centers were not spared of this senseless violence. It was a total breakdown of law and order, and police had difficulty controlling. Some of its own members had suffered serious injuries.
I don’t know of any country which witnesses this kind of criminal violence during an anti-government protest. I am told that every day Bangladesh lost some 1.6 billion taka as a result of the nation-wide closure. Students who were scheduled to take their A or O level test could not appear, thus falling behind by a year. It is a big loss for those students and their parents. But none of these losses, pains and sufferings seems to matter to either the ruling alliance or its opposition. Without a compromising formula, the people had to suffer. And this kind of violent protest will go on until a compromise is reached, which seems highly unlikely. As I write, the opposition alliance has called for another 3-day total shutdown strike beginning on Monday. That is sure to further worsen the prevailing delicate situation.
I am sure a reasonable solution can be found if the parties are willing to make some concessions. If they don’t get to that desired solution, they will take the country to a situation in which a repeat of the so-called 1/11 when military took control would become inevitable. And this time, guessing the public mood, a minus-two formula (i.e., without both madams Hasina and Khaleda – the leaders of the two major parties in the country) may become the reality, whether either the powerful business leaders or the major political party leaders of the country like it or not. That would be a sad event for an emerging democracy, which has failed to learn the D of democracy in the last 42 years of its existence as an independent nation!
As I see it, politics has become an investment these days – a big one, which I must add, in which every investor wants to win. This is true everywhere, even in the western democracies like the USA. The cost of defeat at a party level is simply unacceptable under the current setup for many politicians. But only in an illiberal democracy like Bangladesh, the losing party loses all the government connections for business dealings, tenders and contracts, flow of money to its region and the potential benefits thereof that could be passed on to its cadre and the sycophants, let alone the sponsors and lobbies. Even if they are elected to the parliament, as a member of the opposition party, no money may flow into those areas from which they are elected.
Unless, therefore, this culture of cost of defeat is addressed, i.e., reduced to a minimum, I see little hope that Bangladesh would move forward in which pre- and post-election era violence would become an exception and not a norm. For this to happen, however, not only does Bangladesh require an effective shadow government to monitor the activities of the government, but it must also make sure that her politicians understand that the Bangladeshi pie is a big one which can be shared between all its members, and that democracy need not mean a majoritarian rule in which the winner – the majority party - takes it all, and that legitimate grievances and demands of the opposition members are heard and addressed properly.
I, thus, believe that simply moving to a caretaker government will not in itself solve the post-election era violence and the rejection of the election outcome on the part of the losing party. These are all the alarming episodic symptoms of a chronic legal, economic and political sickness and not the root causes. Unless the fundamental issues around that cost of defeat are addressed, the politics of violence and insanity will not ebb an iota in Bangladesh.
Bangladeshi politicians have forgotten that we have only one tongue and only one mouth to talk, but two ears and two eyes to listen and see. Instead, they are terrible listeners, and behave like the deaf, dumb and blind (soom-moom, book-moon, oom-youn). Just a recently released video of phone conversation between the leaders of the two major parties is sufficient to prove my case here. This attitude must change so that they can respect each other and do what the nation deserves from them. If the political leaders can’t tolerate each other as fellow human beings, politics is a wrong profession for them in a democracy.
Leadership is ultimately about accountability – to God the Creator and to His creation. If one is oblivious of that hard fact, only ruination awaits that person both in this world and in the afterlife. It was this fear of accountability which led Amir-ul-Mu’meneen, the Caliph, Umar ibn Khattab (R) to say 14 centuries ago, “Should a lost goat die in the Shat al-‘Arab I tend to think that Allah, the Most Exalted, will question me about it on the Day of Judgment.” [Wisdom of Mankind; Hilyat’ul Awliya wa Tabaqatul Asfiya] If that be the concern of a ruler for a mere goat, how about saving human lives? Don’t they deserve better as the best of the creation?

Surely, the Bangladeshi nation hates bloodshed, but craves for sustainable peace and prosperity. And its politicians can deliver this if they have the will and sincerity of intention and purpose. But do they?