Bangladesh's 'Begums' face exile

An anticorruption drive, led by Bangladesh's military leaders, last week reached the highest levels of the country's political machine.

Bangladesh could be witnessing the end of an era as the two rival "Begums," the undeclared royalty of the country's dynastic politics, are forced into exile by the military-backed interim regime that now rules the country.

In the past several weeks, the regime has gradually increased its pressure on Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, the leaders of the country's two main political parties, to leave active politics and seek exile.

But with the leaders facing forced expulsion, the future of Bangladesh's notoriously volatile democracy now looks more uncertain than ever before.

As the military-backed regime's state of emergency enters its fourth month, many Bangladeshis are beginning to see an ominous air of permanence in the Army's once-popular anticorruption campaign.

This month, the regime's civilian leader, Fakhruddin Ahmed, deferred elections until at least the end of 2008

"In spite of all the corruption and abuses of power that they might have allowed party members to carry out, Hasina and Khaleda have a legitimacy in the eyes of the people that must be taken into account," says political analyst and journalist Ataus Samad. "If they use force to exile the two leaders, however, they will run themselves into an even deeper crisis than the one they currently face."

The two Begums, who served alternately as prime ministers since 1991, are blamed by Dhaka's educated classes for Bangladesh's violent and corrupt political culture. Pitched street battles between Ms. Hasina's Awami League and Mrs. Zia's Bangladesh National Party (BNP) have resulted in more than 30 deaths since last October.

In January this year, as the League and the BNP prepared to face off on the streets over controversial national elections scheduled for later that month, Bangladesh's Army chief stepped in to appoint an interim cabinet that would "clean up" politics under a state of emergency.

Since then, the regime has mounted a massive anticorruption crackdown, arresting over 160 senior politicians and businessmen who have pledged allegiance to either of the two major political parties, at least 16 of whom are former ministers. Last month, the government froze 53 bank accounts reportedly worth a staggering $377 million in illegal funds.

On Sunday, British Airways in London refused to carry Hasina to Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital, after the military-backed regime instructed them not to issue her a boarding pass. Hasina was on her way back from the US, where she was visiting her son. A lower court in Dhaka had issued an arrest warrant for her on Sunday morning, charging her as an accomplice in the murders of four rival political activists during street violence last October.

Meanwhile, rumors abound that the Army-backed regime is pressuring former prime minister Zia, Hasina's political arch rival, to seek exile in Saudi Arabia with her immediate family. Zia is currently living under undeclared "house arrest" and is widely believed to be resisting the government's attempts to send her abroad.

On Monday, Dhaka's High Court threw a wrench in the works of the government's exile plans by suspending the arrest warrant against Hasina until a new investigation into the murders is carried out. That decision came one day after the court demanded that the current regime explain within five days whether Zia was being held under house arrest.

Zia's BNP led an alliance to win a two-thirds parliamentary majority in the 2001 elections, but her regime is accused of rampant corruption and abuse of power.

The anticorruption crackdown has left Zia's family dangerously exposed after the Army jailed her elder son and heir apparent, Tarique Rahman, earlier this month on charges of corruption and extortion. His arrest was very popular among ordinary Bangladeshis, for whom Mr. Rahman's lucrative deals with the government was a symbol of his mother's kleptocratic rule.

Zia is believed to be considering exile in exchange for the military-backed government's leniency in dealing with her son's alleged corruption.

As both leaders struggle to remain in the country despite the legal actions against them, serious misgivings are emerging in the popular opinion over what the public sees as the blackmail and intimidation tactics used to exile the Begums.

Over 139,000 people have been arrested and some 70 prisoners have died in custody since the January 11 state of emergency. Dhaka's hundreds of thousands of slum-dwellers and street merchants, who were recently declared "illegal occupants" under the state of emergency and had their stalls and homes bulldozed, have also formed a groundswell of dissatisfaction against the current regime.

"Both the Awami League and the BNP need serious internal reforms, more internal democracy, and perhaps new leadership," says one senior BNP politician. "But we have misgivings about the military imposing these reforms and decapitating our existing structure to achieve this."

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