Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Bangladesh: Hasina And Khaleda Can Now Stay

Rezwan is reporting that the Bangladesh government had a change of heart, and will now allow Sheik Hasina to return to Bangladesh and let Khaleda Zia remain in the country. What a stunning reversal—and a humiliating one at that! It seems the caretaker government is very sensitive to international criticism. Rezwan quotes an official from the U.S. Department of State:
"If the caretaker government does not take right decisions, there is a real possibility that this can threaten Bangladesh democracy and nobody wants to see that."
It’s all official diplospeak, of course, but what the good man is saying is this: “we have publicly supported you, so don’t make us look like fools by acting like idiots.” I think the caretaker government got the message, clearly and loudly.

Reading Update

Not of sound mind at the moment (I’m currently out of work), I thought I would share what I’m currently reading to pass the time:

  • Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey by V.S. Naipaul: I’m a big fan of Naipaul’s non-fiction and travel writings, which are insightful and beautifully written, and this book is no exception. Naipaul, utilizing his talent for observation, and writing with brimming detail, travels through the Islamic world—Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia—trying to make sense of Islam and its adherents.

  • Jasmine: A Novel by Bharati Mukherjee: I’ve just started to read this novel about an Indian immigrant reinventing herself in America, so I don’t have too much to say about it other than the fact that it is eloquently written.

  • Master of Rain: A Novel About Shanghai by Tom Bradby: I love crime novels with a literary bent, which this novel definitely is. Set in 1920’s Shanghai, the city is under effective control of European powers, while echoes of communist revolution emanate from the countryside. It’s a story about an idealistic young police officer named Field, who tries to solve the murder of a Russian prostitute, committed by a ruthless Chinese gangster, but is thwarted at every turn by vested interests.

  • The Best American Crime Writing: 2003 Edition edited by Otto Penzler and Thomas H. Cook: True crime is just as interesting as crime fiction, I think. And this collection is the embodiment of the best crime writing from America’s newspapers and magazines in the year 2003. Since many of the articles were published after 9/11, this edition focuses on terrorism.
For a complete list of books I’ve read, or planning to read, in 2007, please check out my Vox blog.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Pakistan: Religion On Campus

The Nation and I do not share much in common, but we do share distaste for religious extremism, especially as it impacts educational institutions in the developing world. The Nation has a couple of videos highlighting this problem at two universities in Pakistan—where religious extremism affects almost every strata of society. One university is secular and liberal; the other is controlled by religious fanatics. Please check it out.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Khaled Going Into Exile. Hasina To Follow?

It’s official. Khaleda Zia and her family are going into exile, possibly in the next few days. Zia will go to Saudi Arabia for one month to perform umrah. Where she goes after that is anybody’s guess. Chances are Zia will remain in Saudi Arabia, which has given sanctuary to such autocratic leaders like Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif and Uganda’s Idi Amin.

It is an inglorious end for someone who was a Prime Minister just a few months ago; and now she is forced to leave in disgrace. It says a lot that no one is sad to see her go, not even her own party members. A testament, I believe, that Zia’s days were numbered to begin with.

But what about Sheik Hasina? Does she await the same fate as her bitter rival? She’s already in the United States where she has family, forced there by the caretaker government. She wanted to cut her visit short when she was charged with extortion, but the caretaker government was not keen on her returning so soon, so Hasina decided to stay till the end of the month. Whether she will be allowed to return then is another question. The caretaker government does not want her to return at all.

So there you have it: both leaders of once powerful political parties neutralized, and not a bullet was fired. And not a peep out of the people. They, too, are sick and tired of their shenanigans and corruption, and want to see something better. In a way, it is a watershed moment in Bangladesh’s history. The people are no longer willing to tolerate bad behavior. Things are getting better economically. And the people will be damned if they’re going to let politicians muck it up.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Jamaat Get Hit Too

I guess I spoke too soon! Today, the top ten leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, along with the leadership of the Awami League, have been charged with murder. The Worker’s Party has filed a police report claiming that several of its workers were killed as a result of Jamaat and AL hooliganism.

What merit these charges have are anybody’s guess, but no doubt the caretaker government will use it as an excuse to neutralize the leadership of both Jamaat and the Awami League. The caretaker government’s plan is abundantly clear: they want to eviscerate all the major political parties. Will it work? I strongly believe Jamaat to be more robust than either Awami League or BNP, because the former doesn’t rely on personality cults and dynastic politics while the latter do.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Khaleda Zia Under House Arrest

Rezwan is reporting that former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia has been put under house arrest. She’s not even allowed to meet fellow BNP members, only servants can go in and out of her residence.

The caretaker government has moved against her son, who is currently in jail; and yesterday, Sheik Hasina is being sued for extortion, and will probably be placed under house arrest as well. Is the leadership of Jamaat-e-Islami next? They’ve been strangely quiet since elections have been canceled. Known to be loud, bellicose and obnoxious, not a peep out of them, like they know something we don’t.

I’m getting deeply suspicious of the caretaker government’s motives: are they in cahoots with Jamaat? We already have an army general proclaiming Islam will play a key role in governance. What does this mean? I know I sound conspiratorial, but my fears will not be allayed until this caretaker government comes clean on what their goals for Bangladesh are until the next election, which is tentatively 18 months—and a lifetime—away.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Sheik Hasina Accused Of Corruption

Sheik Hasina, the shrill leader of the Awami League, has, unsurprisingly, been accused of extortion. The timing of this announcement is curious given the fact that Sheik Hasina is presently in the United States, and, thus, not really in a position to protest her innocence. It seems the caretaker government is pulling a Benzair Bhutto on Hasina. Bhutto, if you remember, was essentially driven into exile by her opponents after being convicted of corruption, and in exile she remains.

In attempt to neutralize the two parties, the caretaker government has decided to do away with its leadership. Tariq Rehman is also being charged with extortion, and now Hasina can be added to the list. What a curious series of events? The military, the real power behind the government, has stated that one of its cherished goals is to rid Bangladesh of the dynastic, cult-of-personality politics that has corrupted the political system. Will it succeed?

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Why You Can't Call Bangladesh Anymore

This must be the reason why I can’t call Bangladesh, and when I can, the rates are much higher. From The Daily Star:
The government is likely to impose financial penalties and regulatory punishment on mobile phone companies for their involvement in illegal VoIP operation which has deprived the nation of huge tax and revenue for several years, telecoms ministry sources said.

Beginning from January, the Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) has busted several dozen illegal VoIP operations and some of these surprisingly lead directly or indirectly to GrameenPhone (GP), Aktel and Banglalink. Further investigations are going on against other phone companies.

The government has already filed cases against the GP, Aktel and Banglalink for illegal VoIP operation.

These operations have deprived the national exchequer of an estimated annual overseas call revenue and tax amounting to over Tk 6,000 crore. Sources in mobile phone companies however said not that payment of all this money was evaded as they paid taxes for all the calls.

Sources in the companies also blame Bangladesh Telecom Regulatory Commission (BTRC) for its deliberate delay in issuing VoIP licences and Bangladesh Telegraph and Telephone Board (BTTB) for not installing adequate International Trunk Exchange (ITX) to handle growing foreign calls over the years.

They point out that while phone companies were indeed involved in the illegal operation, the fact is there had been huge unmet overseas call demand that needed to be addressed on the one hand, and on the other, the authorities' suspicious dilly-dallying with VoIP licensing or ITX facilities pushed the companies to the illegal business.
The question is: were the mobile phone companies intentionally trying to cheat the Bangladesh government out of tax revenue, or were they just trying to meet customer demand and the government was indifferent to their needs?

Believing in the markets as I do, I will side with the mobile phone companies. The BTTB is notoriously inept as far as meeting the country’s insatiable appetite for telecom facilities is concerned. People much prefer to use mobile phones rather than the landlines provided and maintained by BTTB for the obvious reasons: price, customer service, quality, etc. Like many loss-making, state-owned entities—Biman Bangladesh, for example—it should be shuttered and the government’s role in this thriving industry reduced to that of a regulatory body.

Elections Postponed in Bangladesh

Bangladesh has announced there will be no parliamentary elections for eighteen months. From The Daily Star:
Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) ATM Shamsul Huda yesterday said the Election Commission (EC) will not think about holding any elections either to parliament or local government bodies in next one and a half years.

"During this time, we will simultaneously prepare a voter list with photographs and national identity cards. Once the massive task is done, we will think about holding elections. But now we cannot give any timeline when the elections are likely to be held," the CEC told a press briefing.

When the electoral roll is prepared, there would be a lot of other tasks to be done. The government will have to create a congenial atmosphere for elections, he said.

"So, we cannot say that parliamentary elections will be held just after 18 months. We will be ready for elections after 18 months if everything goes smoothly."
Eighteen months is a long time, but given the arduous task of preparing a new—and valid—voter list, it is a pretty realistic time limit, presuming the caretaker government sticks to it. And by setting a tentative timetable, Bangladesh is hoping to head off any concerns by the international community, which, sooner or later, will demand elections.

None of the major political parties are going to like this, of course, especially the Awami League, who were poised to win the election. But it was they who complained the loudest about irregularities regarding the voter list (and even threatened to boycott the election because of it!), so it is they, more than anyone, who should appreciate the tasks the caretaker government is undertaking to ensure the elections are free and fair.

Nevertheless, this does not mean the caretaker government can do anything it wants in the interim. No. Its feet should be constantly be held to the fire. Currently, the caretaker government is beholden to no one except to itself and the military that backs it. It should be reminded from time to time that Bangladesh is a democracy, not a dictatorship, and people will demand its return.

Friday, April 6, 2007

British Sailors and Marines Finally Speak

Fifteen British sailors and marines released from Iranian captivity, and safely on British soil, have said what we all thought they would say—that Iran, not Britain, acted illegally: by intentionally violating Iraqi territorial waters for the express purpose of kidnapping 15 British sailors and marines and using them in a grotesque propaganda excercise.

The sailors and marines admitted they were coerced into making false confessions, or risk receiving harsh punishments:
British sailors and marines held for nearly two weeks in Iran were blindfolded, bound and threatened with prison if they did not say they had strayed into Iranian waters, a Royal Navy lieutenant who was among the capitives said Friday.

Lt. Felix Carman, safely home with his 14 colleagues, said the crew faced harsh interrogation by their Iranian captors and slept in stone cells on piles of blankets. Unable to see and kept isolated, they heard weapons cocking.

"We were blindfolded, our hands were bound and we were forced up against a wall. Throughout our ordeal we faced constant psychological pressure," Carman said. "All of us were kept in isolation. We were interrogated most nights and presented with two options. If we admitted that we'd strayed, we'd be on a plane to (Britain) pretty soon. If we didn't, we faced up to seven years in prison."
Doesn't sound like they were treated humanely as some pro-Iranian critics contend, but it does sound like the Iran most people—including countless pro-democracy activists and other dissidents rotting in Iranian gulags—know all too well.

As for what really happened off the coast of Iraq, the British sailors and marines saw it much differently then what they were forced to confess on Iranian television. Lt. Carman, says:
"Let me make this clear — irrespective of what was said in the past — when we were detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard we were inside internationally recognized Iraqi territorial waters," he said. "At no time did we actually say were sorry for straying into Iranian waters."
A non-apology apology? This will drive the wingnuts crazy, of course. They treat every military confrontation like some Greek tragedy: better the sailors and marines fought the Iranians to the death, no matter how dim the prospects of success, than be humiliated in front of television cameras. But the sailors and marines are safe, and at what cost? Some pride? And releasing an Iranian diplomat who is no longer useful? Let’s move on.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Why Defend Iran?

There is no better example of Iranian ass-kissing than this editorial from The Hindu, regarding the release of 15 British sailors. It admonishes the British (and Americans) for the arrogant imperialists they are, while, at the same time, praising Iran for being magnanimous in handling the matter. No surprise given the newspaper’s often pro-Iranian stance, but the last sentence really does take the cake:
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has acted wisely in pardoning the sailors for their intrusion and promising their release. He has also said Iran will be steadfast in defending its sovereignty. Mr. Blair would do well to heed this message.
In turn, Iraq will be steadfast in defending its sovereignty against the many “illegal” incursions made by Iran. It’s well within its rights to do so, is it not? I’m sure The Hindu has heard about Iran meddling in Iraq's affairs but chooses to ignore it: no need for facts to mar a good polemic.

Nevertheless, it helps to list one or two items. First, five Iranian intelligence officers—all alleged members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards—are currently being held by the U.S. Army for stoking sectarian violence. And second, there is no mention of Iran sponsoring Muqtada al-Sadr, a thug, and the supplying of his openly violent militia, the ill-named Mahdi Army. Given this blatant interference by Iran, both Britain and the United States have no choice but to respond.

The problem with The Hindu is that it considers Iran a saint, when, in fact, it's a sinner.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Bangladesh To Ban Politics On Campus

The Bangladesh government is drafting a bill that will outlaw politics in the nation’s public universities and colleges.
The government has initiated a move for a permanent ban on politics of students and teachers in public universities and colleges, in a significant bid to restore proper atmosphere for education.

Since January 11, all political activities have remained banned under the emergency rules while the University Grants Commission (UGC) is drafting a law that will restrict politics in educational institutions even after the state of emergency is withdrawn, sources said.

The education ministry that directed drafting the law, identified students' and teachers' politics as a major obstacle to suitable atmosphere for education.
I won’t be the first one to say that this is a welcome development, but only to a point. Politics on Bangladesh's university and college campuses are often raucous, riotous affairs: something akin to mini-civil wars, and disruptive to the point of paralysis. The political parties do nothing about it because they themselves behave in the same obnoxious manner!

Nevertheless, the goal of this law, it seems, goes beyond banning politics on campus, but infringing upon student’s rights to free speech and freedom of assembly. The caretaker government, in my opinion, is overreaching its authority. The goal of the law should not be to simply ban politics on campus, but to curtail it to such an extent that it ceases to be a malignant influence on campus life that it presently is.

Iran To Release Kidnapped British Sailors

The imminent release of 15 British sailors and marines by Iran is great news by anyone’s standards, and nothing more can be said about it except for the fact that the whole experience, from beginning to end, was, well, a bit bizarre.

Outside of the British media, the coverage seems muted, if not ignored altogether. The Bush Administration said little, and Congress, it seems, did not think it merited a debate at all.

The question to ask, of course: whether or not there was a quid pro quo? There has been mention of an Iranian diplomat finally being allowed to go home; and then there’s finally some movement on the five Iranians being held by the U.S. military in Iraq.

Honestly, who knows how these things work. At some level, there is no clear delineation between friend and foe; and relations are determined by specific circumstances, not ideology, which shift like the sands of the Middle East.

UPDATE: The Counterterrorism Blog has grouped some of their posts about the subject here. Well worth the read.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Hindustan Times' New Look

I've never been a big fan of The Hindustan Times, especially their web site, which I find to be cluttered and clogged with too many advertisements. Often loading the web site would crash my browser; it was that poorly designed. I gave up on it a long time ago.

Now I hear that they are rolling out a new version of their web site, which is currently in beta. Check out their new home page to the left (click on image to enlarge).

A definite improvement. It's cleaner and much simpler and, not to mention, much easier on the eyes. It looks like they're parroting The New York Times, there is nothing wrong with that. As a former web developer, there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. I consider it a best practice to mimic functionality whenever possible.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Indian National Interest Launch Print Magazine

The Indian National Interest—a consortium of blogs about India—launched a print edition called Pragati, whose goal, according to its first editorial, is:
This first issue of Pragati expresses several of the themes that we care about dearly: economic freedom, realism in international relations, open society, a culture of tolerance and an emphasis on good governance. The environment, poverty eradication and rural development have long been appropriated by vested ideological and political interests, over which they have come to assert an exclusivity of sorts. We challenge these claims of intellectual monopoly: Pragati will deal with these issues with the seriousness they demand.
The inaugural issue of Pragati can be downloaded here. And if you’re not a subscriber to any of the blogs—I highly recommend Nitin Pai’s Acorn, which is always an excellent source of analysis—under the Indian National Interest’s banner, make sure you add their feeds to your favorite RSS reader; otherwise you are missing out on a lot of great writing.