imperfect | world | 2010

Archive for April, 2006

J K Galbraith

Apr 30,2006

29 April:  J K Galbraith has died.

Myanmar: who gives a damn?

  • Filed under: Asia
Apr 30,2006

Living in the UK, one constantly comes across literature concerning human rights issues in Burma (Myanmar). The thrust of human rights and informational campaigns is to isolate the state of Myanmar. But not so in Bangladesh. Indeed probably not so in all of the ASEAN countries. The approach in ASEAN countries is one of ‘constructive engagement.’ The idea is to overlook the relentless abuse of human rights carried out by the bizarrely named military rulers of Myanmar - the State Peace and Development Council - and instead to draw Myanmar into a variety of economic linkages and from there to bring about incremental change. Well that is the idea and it has to be said it is not working well. (See for example progress on forced-labour - I mean lack of). I also have to say that I find myself in the horrible position of agreeing with Condoleeza Rice, the blood thirsty US Secretary of State who described Myanmar as an “outpost of tyranny.” ASEAN should wake up to that reality and take the necessary steps ….. some chance.

No. Instead the talk amongst the countries in Asia is all about how to get Myanmar gas. If you are a bureaucrat in Bangladesh it is how to levy money from India and Myanmar for any future pipelines. Or perhaps about the Dhaka to Yangon road link. Sometimes there is talk about the Rohingya refugees but never about the persecution that creates the refugees in the first place.

The news out of Myanmar is consistently and depressingly bad. Only yesterday the extent of the SPDC government’s annual cull of Karens hit the pages: 11,000 Displaced as Burma Army Kills Civilians (see photo below of nine year old kid who was shot and survived). .A week and a half earlier there was a Global Day of Action against the Shwe gas project in western Burma - it is feared that severe human rights abuses will attend the development of this project (being undertaken jointly with the South Korean Daewoo corporation). But no fuss anywhere in ASEAN. The notion of solidarity is dead or dying.
injured kid

Rickshaw babes: No 1

Apr 29,2006

richkshaw babe 1

I snapped her somewhere near Sadarghat. And each weekend I will post a new one. As always for balance, I shall be posting up rickshaw hunks too. Unfortunately they are the goonda (gangster) type but - hey - people like a bit of rough now and then…who am i to dictate tests?

On a “serious” note, do these rickshaw babes and goonda hunks pose a traffic hazard? Check this policeman checking out the rickshaw babe when surely his attention should be elsewhere ? And before anyone accuses me of being anti this smokeless form of transport, I am not…..
copper clocks an eyeful

Apr 28,2006

“Social Compliance” is a dirty phrase in Bangladesh particularly to businesses utilising sweatshop labour. They see it as an unnecessary cost. They do not see it for what it actually is: a lifeline for the export-oriented industries AND a means for growth and expansion. It is also an unnecessary and dirty phrase for politicians who would rather busy themselves with gherao, hartal and walkout programs.

The bottom line of a survey done by the Nari Uddug Kendra is that about seventy percent of knitwear factories are not upto mark on “social compliance.” The good news is that of the 55 factories included in the survey, ninety percent complied with standards regarding child labour. However, only a paltry 12 percent comply with the freedom of association standard and a miserable 36.3 percent on workplace environment standards. The brief report linked above is in an industry magazine and fails to paint the real picture of this notorious industry (readymade garments) where workers are badly treated, routinely cheated and made to feel powerless.

Read this report of a speech by Neil Kearney if you want the low-down on the urgency of the matter.

The poor figures are readilly understandable. One of the main stakeholders - the commerce ministry, as mentioned in a previous post, has had no interest whatsoever in compliance development. Rather it seems that the politicans keep holding out for lobbyists to get concessions on the global market. Productivity, quality, delivery, AND SOCIAL REPUTATION are the four pre-requisites of success in today’s global market according to Kearney - the Bangladeshi approach on the other hand is to just get out there with the begging-bowl and beg for concessions.

Strini Moodley

Apr 27,2006

Strini Moodley, a founder of the black consciousness movement in South Africa, died today. And today is South African Freedom Day….I met him once or twice but knew some members of his family better. His mum, who must be in her eighties, survives him. His funeral is on sunday.

SweatFree North America

Apr 27,2006

Toronto is the latest north american city to pass a “No Sweatshops” apparel purchasing policy a couple of days ago. Toronto’s city council buys about $4 million in apparel annualy for police, firefighter and TTC uniforms (transport workers). It is however only the second city in Canada with such a policy (Vancouver passed such a policy last year). In the US about 60 cities have committed to a “No Sweatshops” policy.

The policy requires manufacturers of city apparel and their subcontractors to pay fair wages, respect freedom of association, women’s rights and worker health and safety, and forbids the use of child labour, forced labour, excessive hours of work, and discrimination. It also requires manufacturers to disclose where they produce city apparel so that any worker rights violations at those factories may be brought to the attention of the City.

On those grounds, very few if any factories in Bangladesh would qualify. One can only hope that the BGMEA (garment manufacturers and exporters) are taking heed of such developments. Of course as long as the big corporate fish continue to turn a blind eye then things will remain as they are. Here is a Canadian undercover report by Luc Chartrand which shows that as recently as last year (November 2005) Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, despite claiming to have a very strict corporate code of conduct and one which explicitly states that the company will not deal with any supplier that employs children under age 14 is still buying from Bangladeshi factories which employ young children.(CBC News, Luc Chartrand reporting. Click on the fat factory manager below to watch. 2.4mb QuickTime. You need QT installed and broadband obviously helps)


And in case you need reminding of what the fuss is all about - view a slide show of a recent disaster at a sweatshop by clicking the image below.


Apr 26,2006

Not even the most creative anti-indian agitator could have dreamt this one up: Dhaka owls are being killed for their brains and eyes. Why? To cure sexual deficiencies across the border in India. Sex maniacs have created such a demand that six adult owls fetch about $350. Read HERE and HERE.

There is some noise these days about a third force exploiting the stalemate and “dysfunctional governance” created by the two ladies in Bangladesh. Shahid Alam discusses how such a scenario might come about.

And under National News on the Awami League web site, we have the announcement that a computer programmer from the US is arriving tomorrow in Dhaka. So what, i hear you say? Well it is Hasina’s son and so I guess her party webmasters decided that this was news that needed to go on the front page. Or they were told to put up this non-news. Whatever….but today’s capture of militants is still not up on their site…..

Military dictator and cry-baby

Apr 25,2006


Did you know that there was a sub-continental version of the often asked question “what were you doing when Lennon was shot?” Oh yes there is. It is “What were you doing when Pakistan surrendered in Bangladesh in 1971?” General Musharraf of Pakistan, dictator, military hard man, admirer of Roman and German generals and partner to the US in its war against terror, was apparently crying his eyes out at the “disgusting” news of the surrender. The event left the poor man “emotionally hurt” he confessed in a cosy meet-the-Musharraf-family TV show. He was, it appears, a sensitive young commando at the time (but not stationed in Bangladesh). I can just picture Musharraf as a commando with his balaclava on and his machine gun sniffing and sobbing into an atar-scented hankie.

I wonder whether it was the humiliation of defeat or the fact that he was not involved in the killing spree that bothered him most? And after all that weeping it would understandably be hard for him to have any tears left for the hundreds of thousands of innocent bangladeshis who perished?

I am afraid if you read the memoirs, biographies etc of other prominent Pakistani politicians - people like the Bhuttos (both of them) etc - you will encounter similar strange and stuck-in-the-past views about the formation of Bangladesh together with a refusal to acknowledge reality.

Just one thing I would love to know about. Which german generals does Musharraf admire? Those involved in the Nazi aggression against the godless Soviet Union no doubt? Those years of war which resulted in the deaths of millions? That would fit the profile I guess.

Apr 25,2006

In most contexts, if you mess up badly - you get fired. And there is general consensus that Commerce Minister Altaf Hossain Choudhury has messed up not just badly but spectacularly badly. (During his home ministry days, the law and order situation got out of hand. He has since been allegedly linked to massive corruption and being chummy with certain nasty terrorists. Most recently he has presided over spiralling price hikes. And on the international scene his commerce department has been criticised for poor performace in world trade negotiations).When he first messed up in the home ministry, the retired air force man did not get fired. He got shunted to the commerce ministry. He himself termed it a promotion. And now that he has thoroughly messed up his portfolio at the Commerce ministry he has not been fired. He has been made minister without portfolio - meaning ministerial salary, perks and privileges remain intact. He is like a cat with nine lives.

You have got to ask why the PM feels so unable to dismiss this minister fully from all offices of the state. Maybe that is a blog post for another time…

On this “sad” day (just in case he has used up his nine lives) I was wondering how I should remember him. The ex-commerce minister has made many “memorable” statements but the one that sticks in my mind was made earlier this month (9th April). He was speaking at a roundtable entitled “Social and ecological standards in the RMG (readymade garments) industry.” Let me quote him in full:

“Our valued buyers need to recognize our limitations and should not demand standards, which are too high for producers in a country like Bangladesh. The socio-economic realities as well as the capabilities of a Least Developed Country should be considered before asking for compliance with such standards, especially in social and ecological aspects.”

He basically appealed to buyers to forget about the dangerous sweatshop conditions people are forced to work in because Bangladesh was a poor country and it could not conceivably meet any standards. He was in effect saying - don’t harass the factory owners. Who cares if a few hundred men, women and children die in factory fires and collapses? We need this multi-million dollar industry to carry on making us rich…and things like unlocking fire exits is just too exacting for us to meet. Incredibly he was speaking two days before the first anniversary of the most dreadful garment industry disaster the world has seen and after four further disasters in february and march of 2006. Sensitive guy or what?

And no post seems complete these days without something about lobbyists. It seems that the honourable minister issued a press statement as recently as last week re contracting a lobbyist (= the latest form of suprlus appropriation in Bangladesh) in Geneva to press for duty and quote free market access. Read HERE.

Apr 22,2006

Indeed the top 22! Sadly it is for judicial executions. Amnesty has just published it’s 2005 Death Penalty report. Twenty two countries carried out the death penalty last year (and also imposed new ones). Bangladesh carried out 3 executions and imposed 218 death penalties.

Still there are encouraging signs that this barbaric practice is on its way out: 86 countries in the world have abolished the death penalty altogether and 11 others for all crimes except exceptional crimes such as war crimes. Over the last twenty years the numbers of countries using executions have halved. So the trend is definitely positive. Irene Khan, the Amnesty Secretary General (and of bangladeshi origin) pointed out the usual suspects for particular criticism:

“As the world continues to turn away from the use of the death penalty, it is a glaring anomaly that China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the USA stand out for their extreme use of this form of punishment as the ‘top’ executioners in the world.”

The death penalty issue in Bangladesh has often been raised by concerned intellectuals and some newspapers like the Daily Star and Prothom Alo. Nevertheless, like so many other human rights issues, it remains pretty much a non-issue. In a country where people applaud the extra-judicial killings of RAB this is not that surprising.

Absolute idiot relents

Apr 21,2006

King of Nepal

The absolutist monarch, King Gyanendra of Nepal, has finally given way. Well to some extent anyway. The movement for democracy in Nepal has cornered him, and he has decided not to shoot anymore people for the moment.

A little anecdote about him from today’s Indie:

Even as a child, Gyanendra was convinced he was different. While he was at school in India, he was asked to present a flower to the Indian Prime Minister at the time, Jawaharlal Nehru. He refused, saying: “I am higher than he.”

Apr 21,2006

April has been a bad month for Bangladeshi garment factory owners and exporters. For a start, the Bangladesh Garment Manufactureres and Exporters Association (BGMEA) have been stung by widespread criticism inside and outside the country for failing to do anything about the sweatshop conditions - conditions which have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of workers. An international day of action held on 11th April highlighted their infinite greed …and now they have decided to throw in the towel as far as the American market is concerned. They are on the verge of discontinuing lobbying in the US for dutry free access of readymade garments to the US.

Apparently the BGMEA have been employing lobbyists for about five years to try to crack the market. Most recently, from mid- 2004, they have been contracting Sandler, Travis and Rosenberg for the handsome amount of $25,000 per month. And the result has been a big Zero. Now the members of the BGMEA are fed up of spending such vast amounts on a monthly basis and they want to discontinue lobbying. What is interesting is the recent lobby scandal in which the government got embroiled has some bearing on this issue. According to this report, part of of the remit of the Washington Group and Ketchum ( two of the three lobbyists engaged by the government) was to gain concessions for textile exports to the US. What will happen now?

Well I have a few ideas about what the BGMEA could do with the money they will save. Let me just mention one - it is realistic and attainable. And really if the BGMEA members wish to preserve their riches, retain their privileged status gained off the backs of garment workers and indeed promote the industry, they should do it without delay: impose strict regulatory conditions on the industry re health and safety and prosecute without hesitation those employers ignoring such conditions.

Apr 20,2006

Yesterday many protestors were injured in the pitched battles that took place when the opposition Awami League tried to surround the PM’s office. Today there is an opposition general strike again with potential for more violence, and indeed there has been violence today. And because of the police action yesterday, AL has called for yet another general strike on sunday ( a working day in Bangladesh). This is now pretty much a permanent fixture in the political landscape in Bangladesh. For the uninitiated blog reader I have put together some questions and brief answers to help explain this vicious cycle Bangladeshis find themselves in. I can’t be exhaustive in this post but no doubt I shall blog further… I am not claiming to be impartial - I have never been much of a fence sitter but in case you are wondering I don’t subscribe to any political party.

What is this latest turmoil all about?

The pretext is the reform of the election process (caretaker government system) and reform of the election commission. The issues raised by the opposition are real and justified.

So why don’t the government and the opposition sit down and thrash it out?

The pretext is this - Hasina, the leader of the opposition, says that she can’t possibly sit down with the government if they include their coalition partners. The Jamaat-e-Islami are the coalition partners in question. It is a party with a very dubious role in the formation of Bangladesh.

Wouldn’t you find it difficult to sit with Jamaat?

Thankfully I don’t have to. But Hasina Wajed has done it in the past. In the 1990s, she had an informal alliance with Jamaat in order to topple the BNP. And lets not forget that it was Hasina’s father - Sheikh Mujib - who pardoned Jamaat’s supporters in 1973 despite their heinous role in the liberation war.

Ok let’s leave the history for a bit. You keep going on about pretexts. What the hell is all this really about?

How long have you got? It is about flexing destructive power. It is about readying the people for a fight to capture power. The ritual of elections has come to provide an opportunity for these parties to capture public resources. This capture permits the winner to engage in corruption and to immediately enrich their own faction. The outcome for the country of this “clientelist surplus appropriation” is that social and economic transformation is jeopardised.

So its just a fight to capture resources? Nothing ideological? No principles? And what’s this about factions?

Lemme explain. The two main political parties in Bangladesh do not represent different economic interests. They do not represent different social classes. Their supporters come from an array of classes - from the university educated to the peasants in the countryside, small businessmen, big businessmen etc. You can think of them as multi-class factions. Each has its own motley crew of supporters drawn from across the social spectrum. The leaders of the competing factions are similar to each other in class terms. And the people they mobilise are also similar in background to each other. Certainly they may engage in ideological debates but that is just a side show - the real thing is about the interests of the faction. Indeed ideological positions are easily changed in response to changing alignments of factional power ( as above with Hasina and Jamaat, and many other instances of party-hopping, and only today I see that Hasina is now welcoming senior members of the Jatiya Party - once a bitter foe - to her fold).

Hmm. Where can I read more?

You can’t do better than read Professor Mushtaq Khan’s seminal article “The Political Ecomomy of Secularism and Religion in Bangladesh.” His article appears in my mate’s book (plug, plug) Electoral Politics in South Asia, Edited by Subho Basu and Suranjan Das. ( Subho, if you are reading - are you still alive or what?! I didn’t die…) Professor Khan is at the Department of Economics, SOAS, University of London. That article should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the election process in Bangladesh and indeed the issue of religion as it has played out over the years.

So we can expect a lot more of this violence in the coming months ?

Not only the coming months but indeed the forseeable future - is my pessimistic take. To paraphrase Prof Khan - the construction of viable alternatives which can convince the poor majority that they will do better by supporting class politics rather than factional politics is the most important challenge facing progressives in Bangladesh. But as Prof Khan points out “belonging to a faction and participating in the gamble” is a hell of a lot easier and indeed is attended by less opportunity costs than building another kind of politics.

  • this post was slightly changed and cross-posted to Drishtipat
Apr 19,2006

Ah yes, the BMF proudly proclaim on their main site that they have entered the “push button publishing” age with their new blog site. Only it is a third party application …..yes you guessed it, its google’s blogger service. Nevertheless the more info the better. I hope they keep it updated.

Hawa Bhaban ( PM’s son’s office in Banani) should also consider setting up a blog site.  Politicians all over the planet are at it. Gives aloof politicians that human and accessible touch..a damn good election tactic I would say. Also guaranteed to generate huge numbers of hits… just think of the advertising potential …?