Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 7 Issue 46 | November 21, 2008 |

  Cover Story
  Food for Thought
  Human Rights
  Sci Tech
  Star Diary
  Book Review

   SWM Home


Democratising Bangladesh

Sharaf Ahmed

For the last 14 years, an innovative dialogue between Germany, and by extension Europe and Bangladesh, has been taking place in the capital of lower Saxony, Hanover, in Germany. Dubbed the 'Bangladesh Conference', the idea behind the process was to create a platform where influential members of the German government and civil society representatives could interact with Bangladeshi expatriate experts from various German universities, institutions and other sectors, in the spirit of partnership to strengthen relationships between Germany/Europe and Bangladesh. It is also intended to present the best of Bangladesh to Europe and in the process it also aims to discuss the multitude of challenges Bangladesh faces.

The conference, supported by various German institutions, was organised by "Bangladesh in Lower Saxony” (AK BiN). The latest edition of the Bangladesh Conference was recently held in Hanover from October 17-19. It was attended by Sultana Kamal, Former Adviser of the Caretaker Government and the Executive Director Ain-O-Salish Kendra and Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed, founder of Bishwa Shahitya Kendra. For the first time, a well-known member of the United Kingdom's House of Lords, Lord Eric Avebury, Vice-Chair of the UK Parliamentary Human Rights Group and Chair of the International Bangladesh Foundation, attended the conference. Member of the Federal Parliament of Germany, Thilo Hoppe, German-Bangali poet, Dr Ahmed Ziauddin, human rights activist from Belgium, Professor Alokranjan Dasgupta and German Amnesty International's Bangladesh specialist Bernhard Hertlein, amongst many others, were present at the conference.

The Conference theme this year was to explore and examine the partnership between Germany/Europe and Bangladesh in four significant areas: democratisation and political process in Bangladesh, environment and in particular climate change, educational exchange and cultural contact.

The conference, supported by various German institutions, was organised by "Bangladesh in Lower Saxony” (AK BiN).

At a time when Bangladesh stands at crossroads of electoral democracy the conference had two segments on democracy, analysing the backdrop of the state of emergency and the pre-election period leading up to the next general elections.

In her presentation, Sultana Kamal referred to the dreams, which inspired the liberation struggle and how different present reality was from ideals of 1971. She felt that the people of Bangladesh had always fought for democracy but political leadership had failed to nurture a truly democratic culture. Elections, according to her, if held under the state of emergency would suffer from lack of legitimacy.

Lord Avebury, who recently visited Bangladesh, candidly analysed the situation in Bangladesh and emphasised on the law and order situation prior to, during and after the election. He was unequivocal in suggesting that the people of Bangladesh should do everything to ensure the holding of the 18 December elections to restore democracy.

He said a consensus should be reached between the oovernment and the political parties to prevent violence during the election. He opined that political parties should issue a joint statement urging against violence against monitory communities as well as directing their members not to indulge in revenge and hostility.

Bernhard Hertlein of Amnesty International, speaking on behalf of Bangladesh Forum, a network of German organisations working for Bangladesh, emphasised on the human rights situation in Bangladesh, rights of the ethnic and religious minorities. He said that his organisation would particularly monitor human rights situations surrounding elections and the plights of the vulnerable groups.

Professor Abdullah Abu Syeed, referring to the elections, said that he did not consider politics as an event but a process. He regretted the fact that most people did not bother about politics. This, according to him, is because the political process has been corrupt, denying space to people. He said, “Democracy in Bangladesh has only offered political leaders absolute powers.” He opined that two autocrats in Bangladesh were engaged in eliminating one another. He also said that there were two Bangladeshs, one inside of Bangladesh and the one outside, composed of millions of expatriate Bangladeshis. He went on to say that when joined together the two Bangladeshs could bring about real development in Bangladesh.

In his paper D. Ahmed Ziauddin summarised the activism of Bangladeshi expatriates in Europe centring around the European Union institutions, namely, the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council. He identified a number of challenges ahead for Bangladesh, starting with holding of a free, fair, participatory and credible election. He said that the public should be on the lookout as to how the political parties selected their candidates and their qualities. It will also depend on voters whether they opt for crooks, criminals and corrupt, he said.

He pointed out a number of gaps and fault lines embedded in the Constitution of Bangladesh that enabled the Caretaker Government to extend its tenure and prolong emergency. He singled out the disabling effects of Article 70 of the Constitution forbidding MPs to vote independently and called for a constitutional convention to redress and re-empower the people to consolidate democracy. He suggested introduction of recall votes to oust failed MPs.

Another key theme of the Conference was climate change. A two-session workshop within the Conference was titled “Change in Climate and Preservation of Climate”. Moderated by economist Sujit Chowdhury, Goettingen and Energy Engineer Hyder Mirza, Sttutgart, Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed, who is also Vice-Chair of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), narrated the trials and tribulations of the BAPA in its campaign to ban poly bags, lead content in fuel, reclaiming waterworks, enforcing building codes etc to improve living conditions in Dhaka.

The working group discussed global warming and sea level rise affecting Bangladesh. They also talked about frequency of severe cyclones, tidal waves, floods, river erosion, salinity, drought, and soil depletion, arsenic contamination of water, deforestation and vulnerability to large-scale earthquakes. The workshop was briefed about the recently formed European Action Group on Climate Change in Bangladesh, an effort by expatriate European Bangladeshis to create awareness about the menacing effects of climate change, and to lobby European policy makers.

Another workshop was on “Global Learning -- learner's initiatives for one world”, heard from Niko Richter of NETZ and Lipi Mahjabin Ahmed on exchanges between Bangladeshi and German students studying in Germany and Bangladesh.

Deep interests in Bangali culture appeared in the workshop “Tagore Today”, which was moderated by Klaus Strempel with Prof. Alokranjan Dasgupta, Heidelberg University and Alex Goretzki. Shaheem Dill Riaz, a Bangladeshi film director based in Berlin showed his recent film, "Ironeaters". A photo exhibition and cultural show directed by Lipi Ahmed and performed by Minhaz Dipon and Fahim and others enriched the conference.

The conference reached a broad consensus on a number of issues including expectation of the participants that an agreement between all stakeholders would be reached in Bangladesh for an orderly democratic process leading to peaceful elections on December 18. It urged the Caretaker Government and political parties and others to reach a decision on the lifting of emergency, to restore full freedom of expression and movement and other basic rights, along with the government action to make sure that no communal violence takes place in the country.

The conference urged the stakeholders of Bangladeshi politics to review the Constitution of Bangladesh to consolidate and sustain democracy, and in this respect, suggested amending Article 70, which deprives MPs of freedom to exercise their own judgment. It called on voters to exercise their democratic rights to vote using their best judgement to elect candidates most suited for the job in representing their interests. The conference also unanimously called the government to bring to justice the perpetrators of war crimes of 1971.

Sharaf Ahmed lives in Hanover, Germany

.Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008