SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW
That the road to elections to the Bangladesh Jatiya Sangsad (National Assembly) in January 2007 would be chaotic and bloody was a foregone conclusion. However, the intensity and spread of violence that rocked the country for consecutive days starting October 27 came as a major surprise even to doomsday prophets. Political opponents fought prolonged pitched battles not only in capital Dhaka but also in Districts like Kushtia, Meherpur, Magura, Kurigram, Narsingdi, Narayanganj and Bagerhat. Clashes were also reported from Rajshahi, Tangail, Sirajganj, Satkhira, Bogra, Netrakona, Dinajpur, Patuakhali, Khagrachhari, Noakhali, Faridpur, Mymensingh, Jhenidah, Kishoreganj, Pabna, Gaibandha, Barisal, Gazipur, Sylhet and Rangpur Districts. By November 5, 2006, 30 persons had been killed, and scores injured.
Amidst political wrangling over the choice of the Advisor to the Caretaker Government that takes charge three months before Elections are held, Iajuddin Ahmed, who held the country's mostly ceremonial role of President, named himself leader of the interim Government on October 29. While the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s (BNP) nomination of former Chief Justice K.M. Hassan was not acceptable to the Awami League (AL)-led 14 party alliance, the BNP rejected the candidature of both Justice Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury and Justice Hamidul Haque, as proposed by the AL. The provision for a Caretaker Government was enacted in the Constitution on March 26, 1996, by incorporating Articles 58 (B), (C), (D) and (E), with the objective of introducing a system that would ensure the holding of free and fair elections.
But the President’s assumption of the position of Chief Advisor did little to bridge the fierce divide between the BNP and the AL-led alliances. On October 30, the AL placed an 11-point demand before the Caretaker Government, which it said must be fulfilled by November 3. The demands ranged from reconstituting the Election Commission by removing the Chief Election Commissioner M. A. Aziz and preparing a revised voters’ list to diminishing the BNP influence on the decision-making process of the Caretaker Government. While the BNP and its partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami has dismissed the demands as ‘frivolous’, the AL’s campaign has gained support from the various quarters, including media houses and the United States’ Ambassador, Patricia Butenis. The deadline for the fulfillment of the demand has since been extended till November 11, with the warning that the country would sink into another round of agitation if the demands are not met.
The AL’s demands to ensure neutrality of the Caretaker Government need to be seen in the context of the BNP-led regime’s systemic subversion of the country’s bureaucracy over the years. The BNP not only appointed many of its sympathizers to key posts, it has been able to create an extremely efficient machinery for its comeback to power through a process of forced retirements, contractual appointments, promotions and preferential postings. For example, after curtailing the basic training programme at Sardah Police Academy in 2005, the Government placed 821 sub-inspectors (SIs) at different Police Stations, ignoring their required field level training for one and a half years, to ensure that they were assigned election duties. President Ahmed’s largely cosmetic attempt at revamping the bureaucracy has further confirmed the Opposition’s fears. Two key positions in the Administration – Secretaries to the Home and Establishment Ministries – for instance, were given to the officials whose proximity to the BNP-led Government is well-known. Establishment Secretary A.F.M. Solaiman Chowdhury is reported to have strong leaning towards the Jamaat. Home Secretary S.M. Jahirul Islam, during his previous posting of Additional Secretary in the Home Department, is known to have protected police officials who hobnobbed with the Islamist militants. Similarly, on October 31, under pressure from the BNP, the Caretaker Government cancelled the transfer order of Secretary (Power) A.N.H. Akhter Hossain, a known BNP sympathizer.
Similarly, the appointment of M.A. Aziz as the Chief Election Commissioner in May 2005 has largely been interpreted as a blatant political move to brighten up the BNP’s chances of coming back to power. Aziz has courted controversy from the very beginning of his term not only by locking horns with the other two Election Commissioners, but also with the rather neutral media. The voters’ list that Aziz prepared was challenged and struck down as illegal by the Supreme Court. Later, Aziz defied the Apex Court's directive to revise the voters' list and published it amidst protests from the AL-led alliance. He also engaged in aggressive repartee with the media on several occasions, asking them to "learn journalism". Media reports hinted at the Caretaker Government’s ‘indications’ of revamping the Election Commission. However, glowing tributes that Aziz continues to receive from outgoing Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and her partners in the Jamaat, have emboldened him to deny any possibility of his relinquishing office. He made this clear to the two advisors to the Caretaker Government who visited him on November 2.
The countdown to the Elections has also set off the inevitable chain of political match-making, with each combination containing significant potential for violence. Protesting against the 'record corruption' and 'dynasty' in the BNP over the last five years, 102 of the party’s leaders, including 13 incumbent lawmakers (counting a minister and a deputy minister), under the leadership of former President Prof. Badruddoza Chowdhury and freedom fighter Col. (Retd.) Oli Ahmad, on October 26, 2006, announced the formation of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). It is the largest splintering in the BNP’s history. Although Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has asked her party leaders to 'manage' the defectors, leading to a series of attacks on LDP leaders’ houses in various Districts, the split could affect the electoral prospects of the BNP. The LDP has already started courting the AL-led alliance.
The BNP is now all set to form an alliance with former President H.M. Ershad’s Jatiya Party, which has 13 lawmakers in the outgoing Assembly. In spite of considerable opposition from his own party top brass, including former Prime Minister Kazi Zafar Ahmed, who favours a seat-sharing arrangement worked out before joining the alliance, Ershad was reportedly won over with a promise that he would be the official candidate for Presidency if the BNP-led alliance returns to power.
Ershad’s concordat with the BNP has, however, irked the Jamaat, whose relationship with the latter has hit some rough patches in recent times. Incidentally the strongholds of both the Jamaat and Ershad’s Jatiya party, mostly in the northern parts of the country, overlap each other. Thus, any deal with Ershad cuts into the number of seats that the Jamaat hopes to contest in the January elections. Both Jamaat and BNP activists, moreover, have recently clashed in various Districts. On November 2, a leader of the Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), the student wing of the Jamaat, was shot dead and 50 others were injured during a clash between BNP and Jamaat activists at Nangolkot sub-district of the Comilla District. Nevertheless, the Jamaat is not expected to follow the example of a faction of the Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ), which has already severed its ties with the BNP.
The Jamaat’s predicament in continuing its alliance with the BNP could also provide cause for increasing violence targeting the AL and its allies. ICS cadres have reportedly taken over the halls and messes in the Rajshahi University and have begun storing arms and explosives there. Considerable caches of firearms have already been stored in the Nawab Abdul Latif, Amir Ali and Martyr Shamsuzzoha Halls, and some of these came in use in attacks on AL activists on October 30, which left nearly 100 persons injured. Similarly the Islami Bank Hospital in Rajshahi has also been turned into a den for ICS cadres with criminal antecedents.
The probability of violence being increasingly deployed as an instrument of political mobilization over the coming months is further reinforced by the poor achievements of the BNP-led Government on the economic front. On October 27, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, in a speech delivered on the last day of her Government's tenure, outlined the economic progress achieved by the country under her leadership. She said the coalition Government assumed power with a foreign exchange reserve of USD 1 billion, but had maintained a level of over USD 3 billion for the last five years. She disclosed that remittance inflows had increased to USD 4.2 billion in 2005, rising from $ 1.88 billion in 2002. She also stated that per capita income had risen to USD 482 and per capita GDP increased to USD 456 in 2005-06. The country's trade deficit with India has narrowed by 14 percent in the last financial year with increased exports and declining imports.
Contrary to the rosy scenario portrayed by the outgoing Prime Minister, the International Chamber of Commerce – Bangladesh (ICC-B), on October 15, summarized the economic challenges facing the Caretaker Government. The ICC-B claimed that the Caretaker Government “will be facing power shortage, sky-high prices of essentials, increasing oil prices and unrest in readymade garment industry.” The statement further pointed out that poor performance of power and infrastructure has contributed significantly to Bangladesh's decline in the Global Competitiveness Index to 99th position in 2006 from 98th position in 2005.
While the BNP has claimed to have successfully ‘ended’ Islamist militancy in the country by arresting five Majlish-e-Shura (the highest decision-making body) members of the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and the ‘operations commander’ of the Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), little has been done in terms of targeting the sources that financed and armed such movements. As JMB militant leaders wait for the Supreme Court verdict on their petitions to seek the right to appeal on the death sentences awarded to them by the lower Courts and subsequently confirmed by the High Court, there is a feeling of déjà vu in intellectual circles, with a growing sense that the Government has done little in terms of permanently rooting out extremism. Indeed, of late, HuJI-B, largely inactive inside Bangladesh, has emerged as a major vehicle of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)-sponsored terrorism in India.
Political uncertainty and the accompanying chaos has also provided an opportunity to Left Wing extremists in the northern and western parts of the country to organize themselves and carry out attacks on BNP-alliance cadres. On October 11, Purba Banglar Communist Party (PBCP) cadres abducted and killed three BNP activists in the Kushtia District’s Mirpur upazila (sub-district). Earlier, on October 8, a Jamaat activist was killed by PBCP cadres in the same District. Intelligence reports indicate that Left Wing extremists have chalked out a plan to target ruling alliance activists in a bid to avenge the deaths of many of their cadres in fake encounters over the past years.
The January 2007 elections are not far down the road, but the journey there promises to be long, arduous and violent. Worse, the election results are not expected to inject any element of stability and order into the chaos that is Bangladesh today.
The Musharraf regime has completed seven years of its dictatorial rule in Pakistan after overthrowing a democratically elected Government on October 12, 1999, and is losing credibility from day to day. Ironically, the people of Pakistan distributed sweets – considering Musharraf a messiah – when he took power and announced his seven-point agenda, which promised power and prosperity to the people. He has, however, failed to deliver on any of the promises he made to the nation. Now, the perception of masses is that he leads a clique of power-hungry generals and US stooges, who will do anything to please their masters. The killing of 82 people in Bajaur (a designated tribal area near the border with Afghanistan) on October 30, 2006, during an air strike at a madrassah (seminary) goes a long way to reinforce these perceptions.
Pakistan had almost forgotten the politics of agitation and protests, and the people have rarely taken to the streets in the recent past. But the Bajaur incident has sparked a wave of protests across the country. Even groups with known ‘anti-Taliban’ credentials are challenging the regime’s claim that the air strike was carried out by the Pakistan military against foreign terrorists – ‘al-Qaeda suspects’. No one – neither the jihadis/Islamists nor the mainstream population or even the so-called secular liberals – is willing to trust any part of this claim. Every voice is repeating a single mantra – there were no foreigners in the madrassah; most of the dead were children aged between 6 and 15; the madrassah was destroyed by US missiles, and the Pakistan Army was forced to claim the responsibility.
The regime, of course, remains committed to its story that each person killed in the Bajaur strike was a terrorist; that the air strike was the only ‘solution’; and that it was not carried out by the US but by Pakistani Forces alone. The regime’s sycophants – members of the Musharraf-cobbled Pakistan Muslim League – Qaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) are burning the midnight oil to issue statements after statements declaring the air strike a remarkable feat that cleansed the ‘land of the pure’ of 82 terrorists. Unfortunately for them, their claims are meeting with far too many questions for which they have no answers.
The only section that appears satisfied with the air strike is the diplomatic community, who seem convinced by the regime’s version, i.e., the air strike was carried out by Pakistani Forces to target foreign militants. They remain undisturbed by basic questions: why was no effort made to arrest the suspected militants? Why was the madrassah attacked when the regime had finalized a peace deal with tribal leaders in the area? Why has journalists’ entry been banned in Bajaur?
Rahimullah Yusufzai, a highly credible journalist who covers Afghan affairs, was able to secure a draft copy of the peace agreement that the authorities and the local leaders were to sign on October 30, according to which the tribal people had assured the authorities that they would not harbor foreign terrorists, and would hand over to the authorities any foreigner found in the region; they would, moreover, not undertake any unlawful activities against Pakistan or against neighboring countries. The draft agreement was virtually a ‘surrender’ by local leaders. Where, then, was the need to bomb the madrassah on October 30? A majority of people believe that the US did not want the peace agreement to take effect, and was not happy with the previous agreement that the regime had signed with the local Taliban in North Waziristan on September 5, 2006. The bombing was, consequently, intended to sabotage its prospects.
The jihadi / Islamist response to the bombing has been interesting. The extremists insist that the Pakistan military is lying, and that it ‘cannot kill its own citizens’ (conveniently forgetting the Army’s repeated record, including the massacres and mass rapes of Bangladesh), and that the operation was carried out by the US, an not Pakistani Forces. A retired Army General, who preferred not to be named, supported this position: “The Pakistani military does not carry out operations in this manner. It does not resort to an aerial bombing of this nature and that too at such a scale. The military has been forced to accept the responsibility to save the US from the rampage of the Islamists.” Former Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Hameed Gul supplements this viewpoint by telling a jihadi publication, Daily Ummat, on October 31: “Bajaur is a plain and open piece of land. Pakistan Army’s scouts are already in that area. Pakistan Army did not need to attack the place with aerial bombing. The strategy of attack shows that it is the US’ handiwork… The US has a track record of sabotaging peace agreements. It killed Nek Mohammad and sabotaged the Shakai agreement that the then Corps Commander Safdar Hussain had signed with Nek Mohammad. Then the US attacked Damadola. A Pakistani journalist, Hayatullah, collected evidence and proved that the US had attacked Damadola. Hayatullah was picked up by secret agencies and killed for bringing out the truth.”
The past history of military operations against the Taliban/al-Qaeda suggests that almost every major crackdown coincides with the arrival of a high-profile personality in Pakistan. The Bajaur incident took place when the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, was in Pakistan.
The liberal media has also rejected the official version on the Bajaur incident. The Dawn, a strong supporter of Musharraf’s ‘war’ against al Qaeda and the Taliban in the past, editorialized on November 1: “It is impossible to believe the Government’s claim that those killed in the attack on the madrassah near Damadola in Bajaur Agency on Monday morning were all militants… At the same time, the decision to ban journalists’ entry into the Bajaur agency… suggests that the Government may have much to hide.’
Bajaur is located in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) where the clerics of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal [MMA] have substantial influence. Significantly, MMA leaders, including Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, have been denied entry into Bajaur after the incident.
Various international organizations and human rights agencies have also questioned the Bajaur action. Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher for the Human Rights Watch, stated, “Given the repeated assertions that those who have been killed in Bajaur were militants and not civilians, the Government of Pakistan must justify the legality of the attack. If it was a law enforcement operation, the scale of the death points to use of excessive force in the extreme, with no or little effort to minimize loss of life. If it was a full-scale military operation, it raises real concerns about the proportionality of the attack and whether the attack was indiscriminate. The Pakistani Government should allow independent investigators into the area to determine who carried out the attack, how it was planned and executed, and who was killed. The onus is on the Pakistani Government to provide a credible account of the legitimacy of the attack resulting in the deaths of so many.”
The implications of the Bajaur operation, as of past military debacles, will continue to haunt the entire country in time to come. Two local Taliban leaders, linked with the al-Qaeda, have already vowed to take up arms to defend the tribal people of Bajaur against the regime’s atrocities. Maulana Faqir Mohammad and Haji Omar told the BBC Urdu Service on October 31 that they would avenge the Bajaur killings. Chanting slogans threatening death to General Musharraf, Haji Omar declared that he would provide the tribal people of Bajaur with arms and mujahideen, because they had been attacked and had the right to self-defense. The Bajaur killings can only strengthen jihad and further destabilize Pakistan.
Weekly Fatalities: Major Conflicts in South Asia
October 30-November 5, 2006
Provisional data compiled from English language media sources.
11 persons killed in bomb blasts in Assam: 11 persons were killed and 41 sustained injuries in twin bomb blasts suspected to have been triggered by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in the busy Fancy Bazaar and Narengi areas of Guwahati on November 5-evening. City Senior Superintendent of Police Nitul Gogoi stated that four persons were killed in the first blast which occurred around 6:25 pm (IST) at Patharquary of Narengi, while seven persons were killed in Fancy Bazaar in the second blast, which occurred five minutes later. Most of the dead and injured were daily wage earners and petty traders, police said. Inspector General of Police (Special Branch), Khagen Sharma, told reporters that preliminary investigation revealed that programmed time devices (PTD) had been kept on bicycles at the blast sites. He said the ULFA was known to use bicycles to plant PTD or Improvised Explosive Devices to attack soft civilian targets. “The latest modus operandi of the ULFA is to use bicycles to plant high-power programmed time devices as it is easy to move and park at public places without raising suspicion," Sharma added. The Hindu, November 6, 2006.
Pakistani militants using Nepal as base, says Union Minister: On November 4, 2006, Union Minister of State for Home, Sriprakash Jaiswal, said at Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh that India might re-draft its extradition treaty with Nepal because Pakistani militants are using the Himalayan nation as a hideout and base for sneaking into the country. He said Pakistani terrorists have "found a safe hideout in Nepal and it is a safe passage for coming to India." He further said, “The Government would be unable to check this completely as Nepal is a friendly nation and we have a porous border with it. If the need arises, we might consider a new extradition treaty with Nepal.” India and Nepal signed an extradition treaty in 1953 and have been holding negotiations on a new pact. Daily Excelsior, November 5, 2006.
Assam Police chief confirms ULFA presence in Bhutan: Assam Director General of Police (DGP), D.N. Dutt, on November 2, 2006, said that the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) was “using certain stretches of Bhutan for taking shelter.” A day earlier, S.K. Sarkar, Additional Director General of Police (Intelligence) of West Bengal, had said that ULFA and the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) were establishing camps in Bhutan and Nepal and are being helped by the Maoists of Nepal.
Meanwhile, the Bhutanese embassy in New Delhi has denied the presence of ULFA or any other militant group in the country. Jigme Tenzin, third secretary in the Press Division of the embassy, said: “I would like to state for the record that, since the removal of all 13 camps of the ULFA from Bhutan during the military operations conducted by the Royal Bhutan Army in 2003, there has been no presence of the ULFA or any other group inside Bhutan.” Telegraphindia, November 3, 2006.
Number of Sri Lankan refugees to India crosses 15,000: The number of Sri Lankan refugees to India has crossed the 15,000-mark despite a drop in arrivals in October 2006. The total number of refugees in camps in Tamil Nadu is now reportedly 15,912. It includes 6,027 men, 5,451 women, 2,312 male children and 2,122 female children. Hindustantimes, November 2, 2006.
Senior Maoist leader accuses Indian Prime Minister for delay in peace talks: A senior Maoist leader has accused Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh of delaying the peace talks in Nepal. According to the daily Rajdhani, Matrika Yadav, ‘chairman’ of the Maoists' Madhesi National Liberation Front (MNLF), said that Indian authorities have brought pressure upon Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, resulting in the delay in fruitful talks. Yadav, addressing the first convention of MNLF in Bhairahawa, said on November 1, "The key of the talks is in the hands of Indian PM." He further revealed that Maoist ‘chairman’ Prachanda had recently met with the Indian Ambassador to Nepal, Shiv Shankar Mukherjee, to “untie the knot.” Accusing India of frequently interfering in Nepal's internal affairs, Yadav said, "The capitalists from all over the world have gathered in New Delhi to make Maoists unsuccessful." He further accused that US Ambassador James Moriarty, too, had recently visited New Delhi with the same purpose. Yadav also accused Prime Minister Koirala as being “a pawn in the hands of India.” Nepal News, November 2, 2006.
82 people killed in aerial raid on Madrassa in Bajaur: 82 people, including 12 teenagers, were killed during an air strike that targeted a Madrassa (seminary) at Damadola in the Bajaur Agency of Federally Administered Tribal Areas on October 30, 2006. Military spokesperson, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, said that those killed in the attack were all militants and denied that there had been any collateral damage. The operation, he said, was launched following intelligence reports that the seminary was being used as a training facility for terrorist activities.
Locals in Chenagai, a small hamlet in Damadola, a village some 13 kilometers northeast of the regional headquarters, Khaar, said two loud explosions occurred at around 5 a.m. (PST). One missile hit the compound while the other landed in a nearby stream, they said. The seminary was completely destroyed. The single-storey building was reportedly the headquarters of the defunct Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), a pro-Taliban group. Locals added that it also served as a meeting-point for militants waging Jihad against the US-led NATO forces in the neighbouring eastern Afghan province of Kunar. Maulvi Liaqat Ali, a TNSM ‘deputy commander’ and head of the Madrassa, and his three sons were among the dead. However, some local residents said the aerial strike was carried out by fixed-wing US drones which fired hellfire missiles at the compound, killing all those inside the seminary. “Pakistani helicopters arrived 20 minutes later and fired rockets at the hillside,” one resident said. But, the military spokesperson denied US involvement in the attack. Dawn, Daily Times, October 31, 2006.