A recent remark by a government minister that Bangladesh would adopt the type of democracy practiced in Singapore and Malaysia has provoked debate.
“We believe in democracy, but not too much democracy,” Health and Family Welfare Minister Mohammad Nasim told a gathering of party workers in Dhaka on May 16.
“Bangladesh will march forward under Sheikh Hasina emulating the path of Singapore and Malaysia,” said Nasim, who is also a member of the party’s presidium, referring to the prime minister.
The remarks touched off a debate among politicians and analysts, who say that the ruling Awami League is suppressing opposition and independent voices in Bangladesh in the name of development and “controlled democracy.”
“Democracy means democracy. It doesn’t have any substitute and you cannot limit it through any other means,” Badiul Alam Majumder, secretary of Sujon, a human rights group advocating good governance and rule of law, told BenarNews.
Efforts to stifle dissent and free speech could lead to disastrous consequences, as witnessed in Afghanistan where corruption and widespread rigging of elections gave birth to the Taliban and fundamentalist forces, he said.
“When people are deprived of justice and fair play, they tend to resort to religion. Unhealthy politics, corruption and misrule fuel religious extremism as we have seen in Afghanistan,” he added.
Responding to the criticism, Nasim said, “We don’t believe in a democracy that burns people to death through petrol bombs, and harbor the killers of Bangabandhu [Hasina’s father].”
Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was president of Bangladesh during the country’s liberation war in 1971. He later became prime minister, and was assassinated in a coup in August 1975.
Nasim also was referring to violence during a three-month blockade enforced by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that resulted in the deaths of 120 people. Most of them were victims of petrol bombs thrown at public transport vehicles between January and March of this year.
On Jan. 5, BNP leader Khaleda Zia launched a campaign to unseat Hasina’s government, one year after Hasina was reelected in controversial elections boycotted by the opposition.
The BNP failed to achieve that goal.
With most of its senior leaders in jail or on the run fearing arrest, the BNP responded to the ruling party’s new prescription for democracy through a mid-level leader.
“They are trying to portray democracy as an impediment to development and, in the process, they are out to destroy the country,” Asaduzzaman Ripon, international affairs secretary of the BNP, said in a formal rebuttal to Nasim’s remarks.
“This is a dangerous trend and reflects autocratic mentality.”
Independent also observers voiced concern at the concept of “controlled democracy.”
“Democracy is in the DNA of Bangladeshi people and following the Malaysian or Singaporean model may not work for us,” said Jamilur Reza Chowdhury, a former adviser to the caretaker government that conducted free elections in 1996. Those paved the way for the Awami League’s return to power for the first time since 1975.
Referring to Singapore, he said the ruling party there was also losing popularity. In his view, that means Singaporeans also are longing for democracy.
Hafizuddin Khan, who also served as an adviser of the caretaker government, agreed.
“Development does not necessarily mean construction of big projects, roads and bridges,” he told BenarNews
Without good governance, rule of law and stability, people cannot enjoy the fruits of development, he said.
“To achieve that, there is no alternative to transparent and accountable government.”