by Taj Hashmi* 19 July 2022
All is not well in the state of Bangladesh. Here things are far worse than what Marcellus told Horatio in Hamlet: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. Since 2009, what dogged the Bangladeshi polity under the Hasina Regime – unbridled violence and massive corruption at every level of society – has turned into an economic nightmare that may bring the Regime down by 2023. Political and economic disasters are intertwined, much like the chicken or egg dilemma. It will, however, be economics and international politics, not Bangladesh’s sterile politicians, that call the shots to signal yet another round of “neo politics” for Bangladesh, which might yield something better than what prevails today, and to build a better future!
To comprehend how Hasina’s phobias and predicaments have adversely impacted Bangladesh’s democracy, freedom, human rights, and development, a short laundry list of her phobias and predicaments is necessary. It was an unprecedented anarchic mass movement against the incumbent BNP government that brought Hasina to power in 1996. Her party agitated against Khaleda’s first government for electoral fraud. Pro-Awami League bureaucrats abstained from returning to work and improvised the Janatar Mancha, or People’s Platform, to formalize their participation in the mass agitation by demanding the abdication of Khaleda. As a result, Khaleda resigned and Hasina became prime minister. Soon, Hasina began addressing her phobias in order to consolidate her power. Her goal was to neutralize and cow down the armed forces that overthrew the Mujib Regime in 1975. By dumping the Indemnity Act enacted in 1979 by the Zia Administration, which secured the protection of all members of the armed forces involved in the violent overthrow of the Mujib Regime, and by arresting some of the officers involved in the August putsch of 1975. It took until 2010 for them to be executed after Hasina was re-elected in 2008. Khaleda Zia, after coming to power in 2001, did not restore the Indemnity Act of 1979, which was enacted by more than two-thirds of the Parliament under Ziaur Rahman and illegally revoked by Hasina by a single majority.
Through the manipulative pro-Indian Army Chief General Moeen Ahmed, Hasina re-ascended to power as prime minister in 2009 with subtle rigging of the polls. Following this, she has not looked back and has consolidated her stranglehold by physically eliminating her real or presumed enemies and potential adversaries. Through fabricated cases of wrongdoing, she also put thousands of them behind bars, including Khaleda Zia. Since 2009, her regime has abducted and enforced disappearances of hundreds of dissidents and potential threats to her power, as documented in umpteen human rights reports, including those prepared by US and UN human rights organizations. Her government orchestrated a massive witch-hunt by arresting dozens of so-called War Criminals, mainly from the Islam-oriented Jamaat-e-Islami and the BNP, to further weaken the BNP and its allies. Almost all Jamaat-e-Islami top leaders were executed in the most dubious manner by the “International War Crime Tribunal”. By leaking some self-evident Skype tapes between a tribunal judge and a Belgian jurist, international media (especially The Economist) exposed the Tribunal as a kangaroo court. However, Hasina went ahead with the so-called trial process and hung several “war criminals” by 2013. She hasn’t only physically eliminated her political adversaries, but she hasn’t also spared internationally acclaimed Dr. Muhammad Yunus, outspoken journalists, and intellectuals, including Shahidul Alam, whose treatment has been condemned by international media, human rights groups, and leaders and intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky as atrocious violations of human rights. As Hasina herself called Yunus a “usurious moneylender”, “corrupt” and so on, her government dismissed him as Grameen Bank”s chief executive officer, while renowned photographer Shahidul Alam was arrested and brutalized by police, for his public criticism of the Regime.
There’s no doubt that Hasina’s brutal treatment of newspaper editors, journalists, intellectuals, and anyone else she considers a threat to her power, as well as her known corrupt practices a la Marcos or Gotabaya Rajapakse, are true. It would be appropriate to mention Mahmudur Rahman, editor of pro-BNP daily Amar Desh who spent years in jail and was brutalized by police for reproducing the news about the “Skype Scandal” from The Economist in 2012. Barrister Moinul Hossain, a renowned jurist, former editor of a daily, and former member of parliament, spent months in jail for his alleged defamation of a pro-Hasina journalist (though the law of the land doesn’t prescribe a jail term for defamation). Following their abduction by Hasina’s law enforcers, renowned poet Farhad Mazhar and retired ambassador Maroof Zaman are lucky to be alive. The latter was “mysteriously absent” for 467 days. A few years back, BNP lawmaker Salahuddin was abducted by members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a notorious death squad under the Regime, and was later found in Shillong (India), where he is still imprisoned for “illegal trespassing”. The actual number of retaliatory and preventive detentions, and enforced disappearances of people the Hasina Regime considers too dangerous to remain free or alive, is unknown to us. The Regime’s power drunkenness is evident in Hasina’s Foreign Minister Abdul Momen’s assertion: “In the past ten years, there have been only 600 extrajudicial killings.” He was responding to US Treasury sanctions against a handful of Bangladeshi police and RAB officers in December 2021.
The allergy Hasina has to Khaleda Zia and her son Tariq Rahman is a reflection of her innate insecurity about losing power to the BNP, which she knows is much more popular than her Awami League, which has been usurping power since early 2009. One believes Hasina is also allergic to Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the only Nobel Laureate in the country. He is far more well-known abroad — especially in the West — than her late father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Additionally, Hasina herself and the cohorts of her sycophant admirers apparently believe she was also entitled to a Nobel Prize for peace for signing the Chittagong Hill Tracts peace agreement with insurgent Chakmas. Furthermore, they believe she deserves the prize for sheltering an estimated million Rohingya refugees. Since 2009, Hasina’s contempt for Yunus has been fueled by Yunus’s close relationships with the West, the World Bank, and the IMF, all of which may interfere with her authoritarian rule which has virtually wiped off democracy, violated freedom and human rights.
Of late, the Hasina Administration has drawn our attention by nick picking the British Government for its refusal to share any information with Bangladesh Government about Tariq Rahman’s legal status in the UK. On 6th July 2022, the Hasina Administration drew our attention by nick-picking the British Government for not sharing information about Tariq Rahman’s legal status in the UK with the Bangladesh government. Sheikh Hasina and Shahriyar Alam, the state minister for foreign affairs in Bangladesh, wanted the British Government to inform their Bangladeshi counterparts whether Tariq Rahman had been granted political asylum and permanent residence in Britain. “We cannot accept that the British Government refuses to share the legal status of Tariq Rahman in Britain with us”, the minister added quite obtrusively. The rash comment Hasina made about the British Government granting political asylum to Tariq Rahman in exchange for a “hefty amount of money” is grossly undiplomatic and unacceptable.
However, we know that the unelected authoritarian Hasina Regime is doing everything in its power to survive. Hasina’s unrefined language and vulgar innuendos about her opponents at home and abroad are nothing new.
In late June 2022, her imprudent braggadocio garnished with her atypical caustic language against her imaginary enemies — Khaleda and Yunus, in particular — came to the fore in a quixotic public statement, saying it was time to dump Khaleda and Yunus from the Padma Bridge over their alleged opposition to its construction. At the very least, it was a crude, bad joke. As the Regime struggles to stay afloat, Hasina’s tirades against Khaleda and Yunus reflect its desperate state.
There is a sense of optimism about the impending fall of the Regime not only because of its growing unpopularity at home and ominous and not-so-subtle threats of “regime change” from the West and from Washington, but also because of the faltering economic indices. Hasina’s and her Ministers’ and Associates’ erratic and lunatic assertions and activities in the last couple of years simply reflect their collective phobia or fear of the unknown. The loud mouth and vitriol they spew against Khaleda Zia and BNP, Dr. Yunus, and even the Biden Administration reveal their hidden transcript: “Is Bangladesh going the Sri Lanka way or Hasina Gotabaya’s way?” They seem to know much better than outsiders that Bangladesh’s economy is likely to tumble and that Hasina’s regime is at risk of a total collapse. A closer look at the country’s political economy since Hasina’s re-election in 2009 reveals her phobias and predicaments, as well as what has gone so horribly wrong with her and the country she runs as an unelected prime minister. Then again, there’s nothing so inevitable about Bangladesh becoming another Sri Lanka in the negative sense of the expression. Because no two historical events are identical in every way, two countries going through the same cycle of events are not destined to have the same destiny. Nevertheless, the signs are ominous for Hasina and Bangladesh.
Prior to Hasina’s re-election as prime minister in late 2008 – she took office in January 2009 – Bangladeshi and foreign observers and analysts believed the United States, EU, and India had stage-managed the re-installation of the Awami League to power for their geopolitical interests. In his memoirs, The Coalition Years, Pranab Mukherjee reveals that he was the main puppeteer in the re-emergence of Hasina to power in 2007-2008 while he was India’s Minister for External Affairs. What foreign analysts and experts could write and explain without fear of retaliation from the Hasina Regime how Hasina came to power in 2008, their Bangladeshi counterparts couldn’t, for the obvious reason. In 2014, Hasina again came to power through farcical polls. And this time it was purely an Indian-managed show. India’s External Affairs Secretary Sujatha Singh directly intervened to ensure another round of victory for Hasina and Awami League, widely known as the favourite entities in Bangladesh for the powerbrokers in New Delhi. As in the previous case, local media couldn’t take the risk to expose the fraudulent polls and India’s hegemonic influence in Bangladesh.
Following the two fraudulent elections, Hasina and her party governed with unabashed tyranny from 2009 to 2018. Additionally, the police, the bureaucracy, intellectuals, journalists, members of civil society, and even some officers of the armed forces could not be distinguished from the ruling party’s corrupt and ruthless leaders. During this time, the country experienced phenomenal infrastructure development. New roads, bridges, tunnels, and metro rail projects were undertaken, including the Padma Bridge across the Padma, albeit with grossly inflated budgets as a result of mega corruption at all levels of the Hasina Administration. In 2012, the World Bank abandoned the Padma Bridge project after a cabinet minister (in Hasina’s government) solicited bribes from a contractor. The project was later completed using borrowed money and local resources at a much higher cost – three times that of the World Bank project. In short, the Hasina Regime is a corruption-ridden totalitarian one, with no respect for democracy, freedom, and human rights. It is no wonder that retired US Ambassador William Milam compared her regime to fascist regimes in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, days before the most rigged and farcical elections of December 2018. It is certain that the regime is now as fascist as any in history after the 2018 election.
The aftermath of the 2018 elections has resulted in even more reports of Hasina’s tyranny, not only in international media, but also in reports from the US, EU, and UN regarding Hasina’s police, judiciary, and bureaucracy’s flagrant violations of human rights. The Treasury and State Departments of the Biden Administration have also sanctioned some senior police and army officers for extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, and torture against political dissidents, unarmed journalists, students, and others. After the last round of elections in December 2018, international observers and governments, politicians, and human rights activists in the East and West condemned the grossly rigged elections. In the 2018 elections, commonly known as the “midnight elections,” Awami League party workers with direct support from the police, army, election commission officials, and compliant bureaucrats stuffed ballot boxes in favor of their party the night before polling day.
By telecasting the documentary “All the Prime Minister’s Men” in February 2021, Aljazeera TV knocked down a major domino in the citadel of the Hasina Regime, exposing corruption, abductions of dissidents, and rehabilitation of criminals (of the ruling Awami League). Hasina, Army Chief General Abdul Aziz, and other close associates of the Regime were exposed in this documentary for some corrupt practices and human rights violations. Among other human rights organizations, the UN Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International, and Reporters Without Borders have raised “embarrassing questions” regarding the “predatory” Digital Security Act, as well as the enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of dissidents.
US Congress and UN Human Rights Group reports strongly condemn the Hasina Regime after the US Treasury Department sanctioned seven senior police officers and military officers for human rights violations. Hasina’s armed forces and police are being accused of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances in the latest report by the UN Human Rights Commission. The Government must provide satisfactory answers by July 15th, 2022. In the event that the Government is unable to prove Bangladesh’s armed forces and police personnel innocent, one speculates that the UN may impose embargoes on Bangladeshi forces from all UN peacekeeping missions outside Bangladesh. As a result, the morale of the armed forces and police in the country that work at UN peacekeeping operations (very rewarding financially) would be adversely affected. There is a possibility that this will trigger mass resentment if not armed revolt among the armed forces against the Regime. Currently, Bangladesh has all the conditions for the “Sri Lanka Syndrome”, including authoritarian populism, evaporating civil liberties, a dissolution of the rule of law, and militarization of state institutions. What was once an illiberal democracy is now a proto-fascist regime, which generates economic and humanitarian crises. Apparently, the drama is nearing its climax.
Keeping in power as long as possible is Hasina’s goal, so she vociferously undermines all opposition, real and potential. Her going got tough with Biden administration’s pledge to ensure democracy and human rights both at home and abroad to overpower Trump supporters who don’t believe Biden actually defeated their idol. Biden Administration’s decision in December 2021 to sanction several senior military and police officers under Hasina unnerved her beyond description. Although the Hasina Administration has questioned the legitimacy of US sanctions against Bangladeshi law enforcement, citing human rights violations and alleged extrajudicial killings by US police, the Hasina Administration has sought India’s assistance to reverse its sanctions. We know, however, that India lacks the clout and wherewithal to force the US Administration to withdraw sanctions against Bangladeshi law enforcement. It is important to note that India has not only expressed its contempt for the Hasina Administration’s almost total reliance on China for infrastructure development but also refused to export wheat to Bangladesh (or any other country). It will hurt the country as two-thirds of its wheat used to be imported from India at $400 per tonne. It would now have to pay around $460 per tonne, and that too could come from Russia, aggravating the Biden Administration further.
Since Joe Biden’s election, Hasina has not only lost all visible external support for her regime, but the internal situation in Bangladesh is also worsening. Modi Administration is extremely angry with Hasina Regime for allowing Chinese crocodiles into Indian backwaters. In a private conversation, Indian External Affairs Minister Jai Shankar reprimanded his Bangladeshi counterpart Abdul Momen for undertaking too many mega-projects with Chinese assistance. With Chinese money and manpower, the proposed Teesta reservoir in northern Bangladesh (not far from India’s strategically sensitive Siliguri Corridor between India and Nepal), as well as the second terminal at the Sylhet Airport near another strategically important area in the Indian Northeast, are anything but palatable to India. Therefore, it’s not surprising that India hasn’t congratulated Bangladesh on the Padma Bridge, which was largely built with Chinese assistance.
While India has lost interest in its “husband-wife relationship” with Bangladesh (to paraphrase Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Momen), Hasina and her cohorts have been spouting venom against the Biden Administration and the alleged “thousands of human rights violations by US police with impunity”. Last but not least, Hasina herself (quite imprudently and in a childish manner) condemned the Biden Administration for clamping down on sanctions against Russia. As a result of all these tirades, the US hasn’t taken them well. It reminded Bangladesh that it had been providing billions of dollars to the latter since 1972. It’s noteworthy that around 20 percent of Bangladeshi apparel is exported to the US, and around 18 percent of direct foreign investment comes from the country. Hasina urged the Biden Administration to withdraw its sanctions against Russia since they hurt humanity and constituted a “violation of human rights”. It is unclear to her that the Biden Administration’s sanctions against her law enforcers, the State Department’s detailed report on election rigging and human rights violations in Bangladesh, and its refusal to invite Bangladesh to the Democracy Summit in December 2021 are preludes to further sanctions to cripple Bangladesh’s economy in the hope of toppling the Hasina regime. Her ignorance of the fact that most NATO members and US allies in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific traditionally follow the US on retaliatory actions/sanctions is shocking. Therefore, the Hasina Regime can’t survive full-fledged Western sanctions, which would close most of its garment factories, and force most of its 13 million overseas workers from the Middle East (which also can’t afford to go against the West) to return home. It seems the Hasina Administration is blissfully ignorant!
Considering that Putin was the first foreign leader to congratulate Hasina on her (grossly rigged) election victory in 2018, will he be able to save Hasina’s sinking and isolated regime? Can Russia and China turn Bangladesh into another Myanmar through military, diplomatic, and economic ties, which might preserve the Hasina regime, if they are willing and successful? There is no way the answers to the above questions would be anything other than a positive “No”. Neither economically nor militarily, Bangladesh can afford to go beyond the Western zone of interest. Hasina is seeking $5.5 billion from the World Bank, despite her spiteful remarks about the Bank abandoning the Padma Bridge project in 2012 “due to Dr. Yunus’s advice”.
Apart from Hasina’s phobias and her retaliatory acts toward her adversaries and suspected enemies, as well as her external predicaments, her internal crises continue to intensify. In the past 13 years, her arbitrary and retaliatory acts have included massive rigging of national and local elections, abolishing the constitutional provision for the Caretaker Government to hold national elections, the draconian Digital Security Act, universal censorship, shutting down unfriendly and hostile media outlets, mass arrests, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings of opponents. These actions have already delegitimized her government. In spite of this, the Regime has remained in power due to several factors, including ruthless suppression of opposition, disorganized opposition parties, and most importantly, trickling down effects that have kept the grassroots above the starvation line. A growing global economic crisis, which has been aggravated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine after the onset of the Covid pandemic, has already affected Bangladesh. Of late, the signs of impending breaking down of the economy of the country at the macro and micro levels have posed an existential threat to the Regime. “It’s the economy, stupid” has already taken hold as the most pervasive dogma in the country. It is not just Bangladeshi analysts who see the economic factor as the driving force behind the persistence and overthrow of governments in Bangladesh, but many foreign analysts as well.
According to a very well-written piece “The ground under Sheikh Hasina’s feet is shifting” by SOAS academic Dr. Avinash Paliwal in the Hindustan Times (July 13, 2022), Hasina is almost done with her long political journey, which is unlikely to end in success. He writes:
With elections in 2023 and debt repayment schedule kicking off in 2014, it seems only a matter of time for the veneer of (forced) stability to lose its sheen. The risk of dislocation of this so-called house of cards has only been rising in recent years.
Paliwal is right that Hasina’s authoritarian rule has “heightened polarisation and economic distress”. In Hasina’s “house of cards” without electoral legitimacy, the economic, social, and political ground under her feet is shifting. He tells us Hasina’s “bets on economic development” to make her leadership sustainable have failed, while the foreign currency reserve is being depleted, the external debt of the country to the GDP ratio has increased to almost 22 percent and the import spending has gone up to 44 percent. The foreign reserve can cover only about five months’ worth of imports, which is very alarming. He has also implied massive corruption in building the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant with a staggering cost of $13.5 billion, while India paid only $3 billion to build a similar plant in Kudankulam. “Chronic corruption” has kept the delusional “economic miracle” alive. And we believe the economic bubble in Bangladesh is going to implode very soon.
Could the “Sri Lanka Syndrome” recur in Bangladesh, since many factors that led to the overthrow of the Rajapakse dynasty are also present there? Two countries with some similarities and many differences don’t tread the same path to progress or regress. Sri Lanka under Rajapakse’s rule and Bangladesh under Hasina’s rule could both exhibit authoritarian populism with a concentration of political power and wealth among small minorities. With 95 percent literacy and a much more advanced civil society and democratic institutions, Sri Lanka is in a much better position than Bangladesh under Hasina. Only time will tell us which country is going down, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh in the coming years! A pertinent lesson to be learned from the Sri Lankan example is that a country with almost $4,000 per capita income before the collapse of the Rajapakse Regime (against around $2,500 in Bangladesh), with a much better foreign currency reserve ($12 billion for 22 million people against $39 billion for 170 million) became bankrupt in no time. With only five months of import capacity, can Bangladesh sustain its tremendous trade deficit? That’s the question. Is there anything that could lower Bangladesh’s foreign debt in the coming years? Additionally, the country’s foreign debt has increased from less than $5 billion in 2015 to almost $100 billion by 2022.
As the Hasina Regime has virtually stepped outside its comfort zone, so has Bangladesh. The nation will have to pay dearly the price of unaccountable corruption and misrule – by design, not by default – by the Hasina Regime (and its predecessors) eventually. We will all see the consequences of running a country just to maintain the Regime and its cronies at the expense of the nation-state. We will see it sooner than we expected.
Every level of society is affected by corruption, tyranny, and the overall degeneration of the polity, from the President-Prime Minister’s offices to the parliament, supreme court, military headquarters, secretariat, universities, schools, hospitals, police department, banks, industries, market place, mosques, and shrines. Extortion by police and lawmakers is on the rise, as is the eviction of rightful owners of properties by Awami League’s cohorts of students, youths, and labour vigilantes. The ruling Awami League has plundered and laundered billions of dollars through bank defaults. From the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant to the Padma Bridge, every development project undertaken by the Hasina Regime has cost the government three to five times more. Unbelievably, some of these projects cost more than similar projects in the developed world and India.
Corruption in the power-generation sector under this regime may be the mother of all corruption in the country since 1971. A severe power shortage existed in the country when Hasina became prime minister for a second time in early 2009. As a result, her government took some drastic measures to generate more power on an emergency basis. The approach could have been the right one. Retrospectively, it appears that Hasina’s purpose was not to increase the country’s power generation capacity but to enrich her friends and relatives. Barge-mounted generators were used to generate electricity on an emergency basis by a dozen close associates of Hasina. Her government did not issue a tender to dispense this favour to her cronies/partners. Her government also indemnified these electrical contractors from future criticism. Aziz Khan, one of them, became one of Singapore’s top 15 richest men after acquiring what’s called the “Quick-Rental Power Generation” in Bangladesh. The example of Aziz Khan reveals the level of corruption in the Hasina Regime. The electrical contractors have siphoned off several billion dollars from the public treasury as of now. During the past 13 years since Hasina came to power, hasn’t the government been able to establish some mega-electricity plants to dispense with this “Quick-Rental” thing?
To conclude, since tens of thousands of political dissidents are in jail, many more opposition leaders and workers face trumped-up criminal charges, hundreds have been killed extra-judicially and hundreds have gone missing as a result of enforced disappearance, the Regime has totally lost all credibility as one that promotes sustainable development and growth. The so-called success stories of the regime have been unabashedly trumpeted by dozens of pro-Regime economists and think tanks. How long can Hasina and her supporters conceal the nakedness of the emperor from their admirers? Bangladesh’s finance minister boasted in April that the country would soon have $50 billion in foreign exchange reserves. The reserves have now been depleted to $39 billion, which is ironic. With Hasina admitting that electricity generation by the “Quick-Rental” generators has become almost unaffordable, one wonders, how long can this mega corruption continue? As a result, industries, shops, and factories would be the first to suffer a total power outage. Wouldn’t it precipitate the fall of the regime a la Sri Lanka? As a result, political pressure is building from outside the country to overthrow the Regime. In Dhaka, US and EU ambassadors met with top BNP leaders. It is vital that Hasina understands exactly what the Biden Administration is trying to accomplish in Bangladesh. Due to its own overweight, her regime will collapse if she does not comprehend it. The country is expected to be a mess and filled with bloodshed. The Regime and the whole country are in danger of total chaos and anarchy unless a miracle occurs. Her delirious foul-mouthing of Khaleda, Yunus, and the BNP wouldn’t yield any dividends for her. Finally, can the Regime survive by importing wheat and oil from Russia? Bangladesh wouldn’t get away with (from an American perspective) what India might.
*A historian-cum-cultural anthropologist, Taj Hashmi, Ph.D., FRAS, is a retired professor of Security Studies at the APCSS, US. He has written several books and hundreds of journal-articles, and newspaper op-eds. As an analyst of current affairs, he regularly appears on talk shows about Bangladesh, South Asia, and World affairs. His latest book, Fifty Years of Bangladesh, 1971-2021: Crises of Culture, Development, Governance, and Identity, was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in May 2022.