Monday, June 20, 2011

Patriotism And Deal With ConocoPhillips

THE question that the prime minister posed on Saturday—i.e. ‘ who is more patriotic and looks after the interest of the country than I?’—is pleasing to the ears and even encouraging. After all, the person elected by the people to run the country needs to be a patriot beyond question. While we do not question an elected government’s patriotism, we expect the government to prove its claim by its deeds, not by empty rhetoric. However, there are reasons to believe that the question is not merely aimed at vouchsafing the patriotism of the prime minister or, for that matter, the government that she heads. Came as did in the wake of the call for a dawn-to-dusk general strike by the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports on July 3 in protest against the production sharing contract signed between the Awami League-Jatiya Party and the US oil giant ConocoPhillips on June 16 , the question seems to be an indirect way of undermining the committee’s patriotism. The citizens’ forum has provided critical analysis of economic and energy policies of successive governments since its inception in the late-1990 s and persisted with the demand that the people’s ownership should be established on the country’s natural resources. It has never opposed exploration and extraction of the country’s hydrocarbon resources, e.g. coal, gas, oil, and their utilisation in its economic development; its prime demand has been that these resources should be explored and extracted under the supervision of the state-run exploration entity BAPEX and used to the benefit of the people at large. In doing so, its leaders and activists, supporters and sympathisers have time and again proved their readiness to make the ultimate sacrifice. Three persons were killed when the law enforcers opened fire on a largely peaceful demonstration in August 2006 against the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led alliance government’s plan to engage Asia Energy in open-pit coalmining at Phulbari in Dinajpur. If these are not patriotic demands and deeds, one wonders what is. The prime minister may recall the movement that the committee spearheaded then; after all, she, then the leader of the opposition in parliament, went all the way to Phulbari after the government had shelved the plan in the face of the popular uprising and warned the then incumbents of dire consequences if the agreement they had signed with the protesters were not implemented. One needs to keep in mind that patriotism does not lie in episodic public assertions but has to be proved round the clock, round the year through deeds. Regrettably, however, the successive governments have pursued neo-liberal policies and unbridled market economy and commercialised services that are supposed to be rendered by the state, e.g. education and health care, at the behest of the imperialist West; these in no way protect the people’s interest or are any measure of patriotism. Hydrocarbon exploration and extraction agreements have been signed with international oil companies, deals that have allegedly lined up the pockets of a handful of bureaucrats and businesspeople and been used by the ruling quarters as a diplomatic tool to appease the global and regional big powers with a view to perpetuating control over state power locally. Moreover, the ruling quarters have maintained secrecy about the contents of these agreements. Besides, whenever questions and allegations have been raised about these agreements, those in power more often than not resorted to repressive means, thereby only underlining the legitimacy of these questions and allegations. The incumbents have not been any exception either. They have also employed the law enforcers to oppress not only their political rivals but also the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports. They have also kept the content of its agreement with ConocoPhillips under the wraps, just as their predecessors did other such agreements. What makes the national committee’s hartal stand out is the fact that these are meant to neither retain nor return to state power, unlike similar programmes called by the political parties like the Awami League or the BNP. Thus, the general strike is anything but ‘nonsense’, as the finance minister, according to a report published in New Age on Sunday, termed it on Saturday.

Has Bangladesh's Elite Police Force Gone Too Far?

On March 27 , Bangladeshi doctors amputated the leg of Limon Hossain, a 16- year-old student, four days after he was shot during a raid by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Bangladesh's elite security force. Almost everyday since, Hossain's name has made headlines in Bangladesh, becoming a symbol of accusations that the governments paramilitary force acts as judge, jury and executioner in its official mission to clean up this south Asian nation of crime and corruption. "RAB is misusing their power," Hossain says. " They are killing people." On March 23 , Hossain says he was taking his family's calf back home from the fields to his village of Jhalakati in southwest Bangladesh. Out of nowhere, he says, members of RAB arrived on motorbikes. One grabbed Hossain's collar and accused him of being a criminal. Another pulled out a gun and put it against Hossain' s head. Weeping, the boy fell to the ground, pleading for his life. After dragging him to another spot in the village, a RAB member pulled out a revolver and shot him point blank in his left leg. Days later, doctors had cut it off to save his life.RAB, of course, has a very different story. According to RAB's Commander Mohammad Sohail, the village of Jhalakati is the hub of a powerful syndicate headed by Morshed Jamaddar. Everyone there, says Sohail, is in the pocket of Morshed's gang. He says law enforcement agencies have filed 19 cases against Jamaddar, including rape, murder and abduction, and that the Morshed gang has bought "everyone except RAB" — including some local politicians. Sohail says RAB, headquartered in Dhaka, had heard information that Jamaddar was in the village on March 27 , and dispatched a team to capture him. When RAB approached, gang members shot at them, and RAB returned fire. Hossain, Sohail says, was a Morshed lackey caught in the crossfire. "The other story," he says, "is made up by bad people." RAB filed cases against Hossain for illegal arms possession, obstructing law enforcement agents and attempted murder the same day as the shooting.
Dressed in all-black uniforms with black bandanas and wraparound sunglasses, RAB cuts an imposing presence on the streets of Bangladesh. The group was founded in 2004 during a time of "huge deterioration of law and order in the country," according to Sohail. Drug lords, extremists and arms traffickers worked with impunity. Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, says when RAB was created, "rich people implicated in serious crime could buy their way out." By selecting the best from the military and police and loaning them to RAB in two- year rotations, the force was supposed to be above corruption and put an end to the crime wave. By that measure, even the groups harshest critics — and there are many outside of Bangladesh — admit it has been successful. Since 2004 , the force of about 8 ,500 has captured more than 95 ,000 criminals and confiscated 10 , 000 illegal firearms, 5 ,000 bombs and grenades and 400 kilos of heroin, according to RAB statistics. The problems with RAB began, says Adams, when its members began taking justice into their own hands. "They started targeting criminals, because they had no faith in the criminal justice system," he says. RAB admits that their team members have killed some 600 criminals in firefights since 2004 , though Odhikhar, a Bangladeshi human rights group, says the real number is over 730. Human rights organizations say many of those deaths have been intentional extrajudicial killings, sometimes targeting the wrong individual, and that RAB employs violent methods in questioning their suspects. In May, Human Rights Watch released a report cataloging some of RAB's alleged torture incidents and killings, including a case in which they say RAB mistakenly murdered a man because he had the same nickname as a criminal. According to the report, no one has ever been punished in connection to any of the 600- plus deaths. Sohail says Human Rights Watch didn't approach RAB for information and relied on family members of those who had been shot for information. The result, he says, is that the report is "a one-sided complaint book of the criminals and their families." And despite human rights groups' objections, RAB still enjoys wide grassroots support. In a 2009 cable released by Wikileaks, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh called RAB the country's "most respected police unit." Interviews in Bangladesh bear this out. In a typical comment, Anthony Sarker, a hotel manager, said "RAB are real heroes to the poor. They are like black pirates." He not only acknowledged that RAB oversteps its mandate; he said it was necessary. "The normal judicial processes dont work, so sometimes its best to control a criminal RAB's way," said Sarker. This kind of attitude may be changing. Recently, Bangladeshi newspapers have been more openly critical of RAB's alleged extra-judicial killings. Adams says that for the first time, significant segments of public opinion are being critical of RAB's ethics. How the upcoming Hossain court cases play out in public will be a telling barometer of RAB's support. Recovering at a hospital in Dhaka, Hossain and his family fear the lives that await them back in their village. Hossain's mother has sued six members of RAB, but there has yet to be a hearing on their case. "I don' t think there's any hope," says Tofazzal Hossain, Limon's father. He says RAB has powerful allies who have physically threatened his family. "We sued them," he says, "because we didn't want any another boy like Limon to lose his leg. We didn't want any more mothers to cry or fathers to live in agony."