Bangladeshi exile plan backfires

The military-backed regime's failed bid to exile feuding former leaders may signal a political opportunity.

Bangladesh's military-backed interim government's best-laid plans to exile the country's two feuding former prime ministers fell flat this week after increasing local and international pressure forced the regime to back down.

Riding the coattails of public outrage over a violent and corrupt political culture, the interim cabinet and its military backers decided last month to send the two "Begums" – former prime ministers who head Bangladesh's two major political parties – into exile.

It was to be the litmus test for an unelected government that assumed power in January to prevent violent clashes between the parties and quickly declared a state of emergency, scrapped national elections, and arrested over 140,000 people – all in the name of much needed political reforms.

But the plan, which fell through when former Prime Minister Sheik Hasina returned to the country this week, backfired on the interim government by shifting popular sentiment in favor of the two leaders.

"The government underestimated the popularity and legitimacy that these two leaders have in the eyes of the common people, and they pursued these unrealistic, undemocratic exile plans under the advice of certain civil society members who have no connection to the people," says former member of parliament Rashed Khan Menon, who heads the Workers Party of Bangladesh.

How leaders foiled the exile plans

The backdrop for the exile plans had looked perfect.

Mrs. Hasina, who led Bangladesh from 1996 to 2001 and currently heads the influential Awami League party, was already in the US on a private visit, while her archrival Khaleda Zia – whose Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) won a two-thirds majority in the 2001 elections – seemed keen on a deal that might save her sons from being investigated for corruption and abuse of power during her reign. The government reportedly offered leniency against her sons if she agreed to leave the country.

Last month, as Hasina tried to fly from London's Heathrow airport to Bangladesh en route from the US, British Airways refused to board her, saying the Bangladeshi government had instructed them to do so. Hours earlier a lower court in Bangladesh had issued an arrest warrant in her name over the deaths of six rival political activists in an October rally.

Meanwhile, Ms. Zia's younger son had been detained over allegations of corruption and released within 24 hours, reportedly after the BNP chief agreed to accept exile in return for the government's leniency in dealing with her elder son, Tareq Rahman, who is in prison facing charges of corruption and extortion.

But the exile plans faced one major hurdle.

While the government was holding Zia under virtual house arrest, Hasina made headlines across the international press after she said she would return to face "arrest or death." As if on cue, a political aide and former military general close to Zia quoted her as dismissing the possibility of leaving the country.

Political foes unite to challenge regime

On Monday, Hasina defied the government's earlier threats and returned to the capital, Dhaka, to find thousands of her supporters had violated the emergency ban on public gatherings to receive her at the airport. In a rare gesture of civility, Zia welcomed her return, in what analysts say could signal the possibility of a united political movement against the current regime, which has suspended elections till late 2008.

According to media reports, key members in the current cabinet are now mulling the possibility of holding early elections to avoid the possibility of pro-democracy movements that might unite all the major political parties.

"The current regime should hand over power to an elected government as early as possible in order to avoid making mistakes like they did when they tried to exile the two leaders," says journalist and political analyst Ataus Samad.

Already the government's actions seem to be getting increasingly heavy-handed. On Tuesday it issued arrest warrants in the names of more than 5,000 Awami League activists, accusing them of violating the emergency rules when they gathered at the Dhaka airport to welcome Hasina.

On Sunday, the wife of a political aide to Zia filed a writ petition with the high court in Dhaka, challenging the constitutionality of the current regime.

The Awami League and the BNP have fared the worst in the military-backed regime's anti-corruption crackdown after it arrested over 160 top politicians and businessmen close to the parties, including Zia's elder son, in a corruption crackdown since January.

As the exile saga reached its climax, Washington and London – although accused of backing the current regime – criticized the use of intimidation to expel the two leaders.

"If the caretaker government does not take right decisions, there is a real threat to Bangladesh democracy and nobody wants to see that," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on April 24.

By April 25 the government, realizing it had painted itself into a corner, lifted all restrictions on Hasina's return and Zia's movements.

"In this modern day it is unrealistic to think of exile as a way of expelling or punishing someone," says Mr. Menon.

"This was not just an effort to expel two leaders, whatever the allegations against them may be," he says. "This was a plan to undermine the entire political process, and that's why it did not work."

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