ZIA: The thankless role in saving democracy in Bangladesh

Corruption and stealing threaten a once-vibrant nation

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Will 2013 be a watershed in U.S.-Bangladeshi relations? My country of 150 million people, located between India and Myanmar, has been independent since 1971, when the United States was one of the first nations to recognize our right to self-determination. Yet in the past year, relations have been strained to the point where the United States may be accused of standing idle while democracy in Bangladesh is undermined and its economic allegiance shifts toward other growing world powers.

This is not to say that the U.S. government, Congress or agencies they help lead have done nothing. Six months ago, the World Bank withdrew nearly $2 billion in funding for a four-mile bridge project, the largest single infrastructure project in Bangladesh for 40 years, and demanded an inquiry into ministerial corruption and misappropriation of funds.

At the same time, members of the U.S. congressional caucus on Bangladesh condemned the government — in particular Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina — for removing Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus from his post as managing director of Grameen Bank, Bangladesh’s award-winning microfinance institution that has pulled millions out of poverty. The reason for his ouster? Attorney General Mahbubey Alam said the honor was presented to the wrong person: “If anybody in Bangladesh deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, it is Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.”

Most Bangladeshis would disagree that Ms. Hasina has any claim on the prize. Just ask the families of some 300 people who have been registered as missing since 2009 at the hands of Ms. Hasina’s Rapid Action Battalion — a paramilitary wing of the police. Or consider the family of murdered workers’ rights campaigner Aminul Islam, on whose behalf the AFL-CIO is campaigning to overturn U.S.-Bangladeshi trade preferences. Political leaders and their supporters who are being accused by a local war crimes tribunal of involvement in atrocities during the 1971 war of independence also would question Ms. Hasina’s right to the Nobel Prize.

The U.S. ambassador for war crimes has condemned Ms. Hasina’s government for trying only opponents of the regime. In December, the Economist published leaked emails and phone recordings revealing the complicity of the Hasina administration in these trials, and how they are abusing them to issue death sentences to Ms. Hasina’s political opponents.

The simple fact is that over the past five years, Bangladesh has been moving rapidly away from being one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies toward a single family taking over the levers of power. Now Ms. Hasina is attempting to remove from the constitution the need for a caretaker government — six months before the election. Indeed, she herself helped institute this rule, which calls for a nonpolitical government to take the reigns of power and oversee the electoral process unencumbered by political interference.

Having a caretaker government has been the insurance that elections are free and fair. If the voters decide to vote for a new government, then power must change hands. Despite millions joining in street protests against plans to ditch the caretaker government system before the general election this year, Ms. Hasina seems intent on pushing ahead, believing it will allow her to be re-elected despite popular opposition to her rule.

Bangladesh’s neighbor Burma is emerging from exile with the visit of President Obama in the aftermath of his re-election. India continues its growth as the world’s largest democracy. If Bangladesh succumbs to the rule of one family, it would be a major step backward for the region. Southeast Asia is now a region full of hope because of the freedoms America has helped foster. Under a caretaker government, the people of Bangladesh have the chance to express their will through the ballot box.

The United States and its allies, such as Great Britain, have the influence to insist that a caretaker government is instituted so the views of the voters are respected. To ensure this, their words and actions must be much stronger, to keep Bangladesh from slipping away from democracy. Congress and the British Parliament must continue to honor individuals such as Mr. Yunus for what he has achieved to alleviate poverty, while others such as Ms. Hasina have merely coveted recognition.

They also must explain to Ms. Hasina that general preferences for trade will be withdrawn if those who support workers’ rights and have political views opposed to those of the prime minister are not now allowed to express their beliefs. The Western powers should consider targeted travel and other sanctions against those in the regime who undermine democracy, freedom of speech and human rights. They should say and do these things publicly, for all our citizens to see and hear. This is how the United States can ensure that its mission to democratize the world continues.

It was once said, “There is a higher court than courts of justice, and that is the court of conscience.” It is impossible to say in good conscience that democracy, justice and the alleviation of poverty in Bangladesh under Ms. Hasina are safe. Indeed, all are in grave danger. It is time for the world, led by America, to act and ensure that democracy is saved in Bangladesh.

Begum Khaleda Zia is former prime minister of Bangladesh and current leader of the opposition.

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