Monday, October 30, 2006

Fulbright Blog
Date: October 30, 2006
Place: Dhaka

Sorry all! I had intended to post my blog on the security situation here yesterday, but just as I was starting to write it, someone came into my office and told me that I should leave right away because it looked like the rioting might start again. Fortunately, as it turns out, there were no riots yesterday after all. Perhaps now is a good time for a brief summary of Bangladeshi politics...

Bangladesh has elections every five years. Apparently, at each election, the entire government turns over - the positions are not staggered like they are in the U.S. All 330 seats of Parliment and the Prime Minister position are re-elected (although technically the prime minister is appointed by Parliment...) Bangladesh is also very unique in that there is a three month interim period between when the old government leaves and the new government is elected. During this election period, a caretaker is sworn in to run the government. Conceptually, this is to prevent election fraud. Logistically, it seems to be a bit of a nightmare for the Bangladeshi people...

There are two main parties in Bangladesh - the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP). There is also a third party of Islamic fundamentalists called Jamaat-e-Islami and last week a new political party called the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was also formed. The LDP was created by several members of BNP who were dissatisfied with how BNP was being run; in particular they cited several examples of corruption by Khadela Zia's (the ex-prime minister's) son. Until yesterday when the interim government was installed, the BNP was the ruling party and the AL was the opposition. Five years prior, the Awami League was the ruling party.

The current trouble in Bangladesh stems from the choice of the leader of the interim government. Bangladesh's constitution says that the leader should be the last chief justice to retire. This person was Hassan. The BNP-led government, however, had recently extended the retirement age from 65 to 67, which led several people in the Awami League to wonder if it was just to make sure that Hassan would be the caretaker; this then naturally led to thoughts of corruption. Consequently, the AL put strong political pressure on Hassan to reject the position, which he finally did the day before he was supposed to take office. This led to more political turmoil because the parties could not decide who would be the caretaker.

The President volunteered for the job, but the Awami League rejected him. Yesterday, however, after the negotiations between the two parties were unsuccessful, Khadela Zia handed the government over to the President anyway. Thankfully, the Awami League did not riot, but instead said that they would be watching Iajuddin (the President) carefully to ensure that he remained neutral. If he shows bias, the AL says that they will oppose the election in January.

Practically, what all of this has meant for the residents of Dhaka (and other towns in Bangladesh) is that several neighborhoods have been unsafe in the late afternoon and evening because there is rioting on the streets. The first night of riots was on Friday night, the night before the caretaker government was supposed to come in. The rioters were targeting four wheeled vehicles such as taxis and buses, either bombing them or setting them on fire. Consequently, the next day most of the taxis and buses stayed off of the road.

The traffic here has been very light for the past week due to the Eid holiday, but after the riots there was hardly anyone on the street. I had to walk 20 minutes to find a cab on Sunday to get to my Bangla class. I didn't fare much better today. Plus, the only vehicles which are running (predominantly rickshaws and CNGs) are charging at least double what their normal fares would be. Thankfully, the riots have not been in my neighborhood or the neighborhood where my Bangla classes are, but I have to drive through an unstable neighborhood to get from one place to another. There has also been rioting in the neighborhood just south of mine. Consequently, I am trying not to travel anymore than I have to. In fact, today I decided to have a private tutor come to my office to teach me Bangla so that I would not have to commute up to Banani. I did the math and it is actually cheaper for me to do so as well since I am paying such high rates for transport right now! The principal of the school was not in today, but hopefully I can finalize the arrangements next week so that I no longer have to commute...

My two roommates who were traveling (one to Nepal and the other to the Sundarbans) were supposed to have returned by yesterday, but they have not shown up yet. The Awami League has shut down several of the highways that lead in to Dhaka. I have heard that they are not letting anybody in or out of the city... While I have enjoyed the extra time to myself, I feel a bit bad for them as they are undoubtably trapped wherever they are!

Hopefully things will calm down a bit in the next few days. I would not be surprised if there is more political turmoil in January during the elections though...

For those of you who would like to read the Bangladesh news from a Bengali perspective, you can go to The Daily Star, an English Dhaka newspaper, online at: http://www.thedailystar.net/

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