Political Purging in Bangladesh

The Associated Press
Wednesday, September 5, 2007; 4:08 AM

NEW DELHI -- To the surprise of nearly everyone in Bangladesh, the mighty appear to be falling fast in a corner of Asia where power and impunity have long gone hand-in-hand.

A military-backed government is trying to stamp out the corruption that permeates nearly every layer of Bangladeshi society _ from getting a hospital bill (a few dollars) to opening a factory (millions) _ and, in the process, undermine the two politicians whose rivalry is widely blamed for the country's rampant graft.

The soldiers and technocrats who assumed power nine-months ago moved a step closer to their goal Monday with the arrest of former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, picked up nearly two months after her rival, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, was jailed.

The arrests have been welcomed by many in the country that long-ago grew weary of watching the pair trade premierships while corruption worsened and strikes and protests intensified, shutting down everything from urban markets to the garment factories that churn out J. Crew and Banana Republic shirts.

"These people are our Al Capone, people you would never have imagined being taken to task," said Sara Hossain, a Supreme Court lawyer, in a telephone interview from Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital.

But with Zia, Hasina and more than 200 former government ministers, politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats now imprisoned on corruption charges, concerns are also beginning to grow about who or what the generals envision filling the political void.

For Bangladesh's 150 million people, the stakes are clear. Bringing graft under control would go a long way to solving the country's myriad problems, especially it's poverty _ 2-3 percent of its economy, or $1.5 billion, is estimated to be lost to corruption each year, according to the Berlin-based corruption watchdog Transparency International.

For the rest of the world, the stakes are also high. Zia and Hasina's rivalry has left Bangladesh, a country roughly the size of New York state but with more than seven times as many people, barely governed in some parts, raising concerns about instability in this strategic, largely Muslim corner of Asia already contending with Islamic militancy.

"We all know that they did it. But can a convincing case be made?" asked Nazim Kamran Chowdhury, a former lawmaker from Zia's party.

"If not, everything that is going on now, the crackdown on corruption, the promise of effective government, goes down the drain," he added. "We could easily go back to where we were a year ago."

That is, back to a democracy so riddled with problems that many in Bangladesh _ with its history of brutal military rule _ cheered when the military-backed interim government canceled January's elections and imposed emergency rule after months of street violence between supporters of Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Hasina's Awami League.

Bangladesh's problems existed before and after 1971, when it became independent from Pakistan. It was political instability that led to the assassinations and coups which brought Zia, 62, and Hasina, 59, to prominence.

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