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Bangladesh: The Importance of Being Tarique Rahman

Paper No.5652          Dated 23-Feb-2014

By Bhaskar Roy

To many, the title of this article would be a stupid statement. Tarique Rahman, the older son of late President Zia-ur-Rahman, the founder of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), and Begum Khaleda Zia, Chairperson of the BNP and two time prime minister of Bangladesh, is the Vice Chairman of the BNP.

Charged with bribery, extortion, money laundering, proximity to terrorist leaders and the radical Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) whose leaders are being tried for “crimes against humanity” in the country’s independence struggle in 1971, became a power unto himself during the BNP-JEI rule from 2001-2006.  

Tarique’s office at that time located in a building called Hawa Bhavan in Dhaka was the real power center of the government. His mother Khaleda Zia, the prime minister, could do little else but agree to his demands. Despite all the charges against him, Tarique manipulated the highest courts in the country to get bail and permission to move to UK for medical treatment in early 2008. He is politically active in UK, which is against the condition of his visa, but the government there has not made any move to expel him. Nor is such a move expected.

Tarique Rahman continues to direct BNP-JEI policies abroad, as well as his party’s politics in Bangladesh. From where does he draw such enormous power? From international power centers? It should be kept in mind that one UK based weekly of international repute had put its power behind the BNP and JEI and even attacked India’s alleged financial support to the Awami League. Has there been some realignment of the west’s policies, especially that of the US and UK, with regard to Bangladesh?

Recently, the bdnews24.com (Feb. 11) published a Wikileaks report of a confidential cable from the US Embassy in Dhaka of Nov. 3, 2008 to the State Department recommending a ban on the entry of Tarique Rahman into the United States. The reasons cited in the cable are briefly as follows:  

(i)                Tarique was “guilty of egregious political corruption that has had a serious adverse effect on US national interests.

(ii)              “Through 2006, the nation (Bangladesh) topped Transparency International’s ranking of the world’s most corrupt government for four years in a row” (note: The BNP-JEI headed the government from end 2001-2006).

(iii)            Described Tarique Rahman as “the notorious and widely feared son of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia” and “a symbol of kleptocratic government and violent politics in Bangladesh”.

(iv)            “Tarique manipulated the judicial process and overcame a concentrated effort by the caretaker government to block his bail”……… “multiple extortion cases piling against him”

(v)              “Tarique’s flagrant corruption has also seriously threatened specific US mission goals: democratization, development, and denial of space to terrorists”………. “his flagrant disregard for the rule of law has provided potent ground for terrorists to gain a foothold in Bangladesh”.

The indictment of Tarique Rahman Vice Chairman of the BNP was damning. The indictment does not stop at Tarique. It covers the entire party and its main ally the JEI, since available evidence and Chittagong special court judgment on the arms haul case exposed how wide this dirty network of Tarique extended. More cases are coming up because political assassination cases and very high level corruption cases are yet to taken up in the courts.

When the above mentioned cable was sent, the US Ambassador in Dhaka was James F. Moriarty. At that time the top most focus of US foreign policy was counter terrorism and elimination of Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden. The period 2002-2006 witnessed the sharp rise of Islamic terrorism and extremism. Terrorist and radical organizations supporting terrorists mushroomed. On August 17, 2005 the Jamat-ul-Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB) exploded bombs in 63 out 64 districts in the country demonstrating their strength and organization. The government leaders kept denying the existence of the  JMB and called it a figment of imagination of the media. There was a point in late 2006 when the Al Qaeda made some inquires about setting up a base in Bangladesh.

The US understood the threat and assisted Bangladesh in detecting money laundering. The concern in Washington was serious. But there was always a sense that Washington had a soft spot for the BNP and the JEI. This empathy has become almost open now.

Addressing a special Congressional session on Bangladesh on February 11 in Washington, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Nisha Desai Biswal warned that Bangladesh’s “deeply flawed” elections on January 05 could have serious ramifications for the stability of the country and the region. She went on to say that the election (boycotted by the second major political party, the BNP) did not credibly express the will of the people. She also added “as the seventh-largest country by population and the third-largest Muslim-majority nation, its moderate, secular democracy is one we value and support”. Ms. Biswal expressed high concern over the ongoing political violence in the country.

It is obvious that the US has downgraded its relations with the present Awami League led government. After a meeting (Feb. 11) with opposition leader and BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia in Dhaka, US Ambassador Dan Mozena told reporters that relations were not “ business as usual”. The ‘faulty’ elections was a cause, Mozena indicated.

All including the Awami League agree that the elections were not ideal with the opposition not participating in one clause of the constitution, that is, a “caretaker government” conducting the elections. This issue is not illegal by any means. The caretaker government clause was amended legally by parliament.

The JEI was not in the fray for election. It was banned by a High Court order as it refused to abide by the Constitution and the electoral laws of the country. Its demand in its manifesto remains imposition of “sharia law” in the country, a retrograde ideology.

This was an election which the entire world was focussed on. The sitting government had won the last election by an unprecedented majority, as the people trashed the BNP-JEI government to the dustbin. Sk. Hasina personally oversaw the elimination of terrorism and extremism from Bangladesh. She also embarked upon a long awaited course-bringing to trial the leaders of the anti independence groups and their crimes against humanity in 1971. But her government made some serious mistakes in governance, costing the party heavily, and losing supporters.

Returning to the election process, would the opposition agree on a common caretaker chairman and members? Very unlikely. The opposition was offered the very important post of home minister in the skeletal government to conduct the elections. They refused. Khaleda Zia’s position was removal of Sk. Hasina from all posts and responsibilities.

The real intention was scuttling the war crimes trials. The indicted are mainly JEI top leaders and at least one belonging to the BNP. Chaos nearing a civil war was the way the opposition chose.

It is understood that the US has a special interest in Bangladesh. Part of it is connected to the US pivot in Asia-Pacific, its surge in Myanmar and its democratization process, and countering China. Giving it the benefit of doubt, it may be accepted that  the US wants a democratic, secular Bangladesh, though history suggests it does very well with autocratic, religious government/kingdoms if their strategic purpose is served.

There are also contemporary indications that the US is looking for regime change in Dhaka, especially Sk. Hasina, and install a pliable figure head. At the end, Begum Khaleda Zia with JEI support may not be acceptable to Washington. But it must rethink its course.

Removing Sk. Hasina will lead to a domino effect. The Awami League will crumble, unless there is a smooth succession which is unlikely. An US installed puppet at the head of Bangladesh will not work. Foreign installed puppets have never succeeded in history.

That will open the space for a BNP-Jamaat alliance, dominated by Jamaat, that will rule the country. India will be left with hosting another wave of refugees which will be more than the 10 million of 1971, along with a flood of terrorism. The US may withdraw as it did in Afghanistan in 1989. It has left Iraq with daily terrorist and sectarian killings.

India cannot let this happen. Nor can Bangladeshis who hope for development, sit aside.

Given Begum Khaleda Zia’s health, Tarique Rahman will hold the key to the destiny of the opposition and the country.

   Note: The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst.  He can be reached at e-mail grouchohart@yahoo.com      

 

 

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