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Khaleda Zia: Bangladesh takes pride in participating in Kuwait Liberation War

Khaleda Zia with Adnan Al-Rashid (right) and Mohammad Al-Husseini

Khaleda Zia with Adnan Al-Rashid (right) and Mohammad Al-Husseini

DHAKA: One of the most influential personalities in her country, Begum Khaleda Zia has an unmistakable impact on Bangladesh's political life which she first entered after the assassination of her husband, former President of Bangladesh Ziaur Rahman. A former prime minister in her own right, Zia is now recognized as the leader of the opposition; a title she held since her party lost the 2008 elections in favor of the Bangladesh Awami League. Despite multiple arrests during the term of former President General Hussain Ershad, Khaleda Zia continued going forward until she became the leader of Bangladesh's biggest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Al-Anbaa met Zia as Bangladesh prepares to enter a critical phase in its political scene, especially with the strong conflict between the government and opposition, and in light of the opposition's demand to have the next elections carried out under an unbiased, transitional government 'capable of organizing fair elections'. Zia insists that her party, along with 18 opposition parties and around 90 of the public, demand a transitional government, announcing at the same time plans to 'withdraw immediately' from the elections if the polls are conducted by the current government.

During the interview with Al-Anbaa, Zia spoke about her vision to allow young people to take part in state management, as well as her future plans for change which are based on four main fields that include combating terrorism and corruption as well as encouraging foreign investment and girls' education. And while acknowledging Kuwaiti-Bangladeshi relations which she described as 'ties of blood' after Bangladeshi troops took part in the 1991 Liberation War of Kuwait, Zia said that she will continue communicating with other Muslim countries to benefit from Bangladeshi labor forces. Zia was also asked about the Rohingya Muslims crisis, on which she reiterated her country's position in dealing with this case from a humanitarian perspective, and demanded action from the international community to grant full rights to Myanmar's Muslim community.

Q: We would like to begin our meeting by discussing the bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Kuwait, especially that you previously held the decision maker's position in improving those relations.
A: Stemming from the fact that the majority of Bangladesh's population are Muslims, the late President Ziaur Rahman's vision when he established the Bangladesh Nationalist Party was clear towards improving relations with Muslim countries. He gave top priority to this goal, and transformed it into an article in the constitution in order to achieve it.
I believe that Bangladesh shares one of the most friendliest relations with Kuwait among its relations with other countries. They can also be considered brotherly relations; which is something we feel deep within our hearts rather than being spoken from a diplomatic standpoint. The best example to support my argument is when Kuwait was invaded by the Iraqi forces, and our army participated in the Kuwait Liberation War during which people of the two countries became connected with blood ties. I remember after the liberation, I stopped in Kuwait on my way back from an official visit to Saudi Arabia. The late Amir His Highness Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah had just returned to Kuwait, and the country was still suffering from destruction. Despite that, I received a warm welcome and was offered a private jet to Dhaka.

Q: There is widespread talk about potential changes if elections took place on time, but you as the opposition still threaten to boycott the polls if your demands are not met.
A: Bangladesh is going through a phase in which the people are conflicted. The current government wants to oversee the elections, but we along with parties in the ruling coalition insist that the elections must be held under an unbiased, transitional government that carries out a caretaker government's duties at that time.
[Bangladesh's Prime Minister] Sheikh Hasina demanded an unbiased government in 1996 along with Islamist groups. They forced us at that time to amend the constitution in order to create this kind of government which has overseen the last three elections. Despite this, Sheikh Hasina's government is now denying our demands and in reality wants to control the elections which they plan to enter with MPs who enjoy full privileges that give them the advantage against the opposition. Furthermore, election committees are formed by two parties in the ruling coalition. By being the head of government, Sheikh Hasina can direct and even put pressure on them which will definitely affect the results.
I would like to give an example in the supplementary elections that were held to fill some vacant seats. The seats were won by the ruling coalition as a result of their total control. Meanwhile, the local administrations' elections were left for us as a political maneuver to convince us that the elections are fair, but we will not fall in the trap.
The prime minister plans to open projects, use aerial transportation, the military and public administrations in her reelection bid, which does not translate into equal opportunities.

Q: Can we expect a 'Bangladeshi Spring' similar to the Arab Spring?
A: I believe that the situations in the Arab world and Bangladesh are different and therefore cannot be compared with each other.  We are a democracy-loving nation, and our true spring began in 1990 when democracy was retained after the overthrow of military rule. Our people believe that the transition of power can only take place through democracy, but at the same time demand to take part in elections that guarantee equal opportunities for all parties.

Q: There are comparisons between the situation in Bangladesh and that of Egypt, and people who believe that you as an opposition will lead demonstrations in order to put pressure on the army to interfere. You are also being accused of being 'not against' a situation in which the army takes over a transitional period temporary in place of the Bangladesh Awami League. What is your response?
A: Such accusations are untrue of course because we believe in dialogue and in the need to protect democracy which I worked for personally for nine years. I would like to bring to your attention the fact that parties in the current government tried to get the army involved as we all remember their participation in the 1982 elections called by then President General Hussain Ershad, thus giving legitimacy to those elections. And when the army took over the government in 2007, they said that the movement was aimed against me. This means that they are the ones who call for the army's intervention.
Sheikh Hasina's term completes at the end of October, and we are calling for dialogue. We did not call for any political movement that violates the democratic process. The problem is not in us, but with the government that turns a deaf ear and refuses to listen to any argument.

Q: Do you not believe in the judiciary and the Supreme Court's position regarding an unbiased government?
A: First of all, the Bangladeshi judiciary needs to be independent. We regret to say that this is not the case in Bangladesh nowadays. We no longer have faith in the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court because the recent appointments there brought members from the ruling coalition to it.
But despite that, I say that when the Supreme Court made its decision regarding the constitutional amendment in favor of canceling the unbiased government during the elections period, the same verdict indicated that an unbiased government is still needed to oversee the two upcoming elections which is something that the current government refuses to honor.
I reiterate our belief that smooth transition of power cannot be achieved unless under an unbiased government. The problem we face lies in the presence of authorities that 'control' the court that does not enjoy independence when it looks into political issues. We find that it goes to the government directly for consultation, which ultimately affects its judgment.

Q: At which date do you plan to announce withdrawal from the elections?
A: Whenever the government makes a unilateral decision to personally organize the elections; we will immediately announce our withdrawal.

Q: Which parties are likely to join you?
A: Ninety percent of the people support a transitional, unbiased government to oversee the elections. Eighteen parties allied with us at the moment agree on this notion. These include former presidents Badruddoza Chowdhury, Hussain Ershad and Dr Kamal Hussain as well, so we can say that almost all parties except for the ruling party plan to boycott elections held by the present government.

Q: India usually plays a main role in the Bangladeshi elections judging from its influence on the political scene. And while it traditionally leans towards Sheikh Hasina, there has been talk recently about 'Indian openness' towards the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Is this true? And to what extent does the Indian influence impact the elections?
A: The majority of Bangladeshi people are Muslims, but this does not mean that citizens of other beliefs do not enjoy full citizenship rights. We all are Bangladeshi and there is no difference between each other. Furthermore, we do not accept foreign intervention in our personal affairs, whether it is from India or any other country. We assume good relations from our neighbors.
When I went to India following an invitation from the Indian government, I focused on the need to improve relations with the Indian people especially in trade. Of course there are points of conflict between us and different visions regarding some issues, but that should not affect the bilateral relations especially that Indian officials insist that they share equal relations with all members of the Bangladeshi community.

Q: Observers in Bangladesh's political scene believe that the ruling family started losing popularity following its conflict with Islamists. However, their overwhelming victory in the last elections was a result of public disapproval of your party's performance. Have you carried out self-accountability since? And what are the factors through which you urge those who voted against you the last time to change their minds?
A: We have plans for change in four main fields: fighting corruption, combating terrorism, encouraging foreign investment and improving education especially with regards to girls' education. What the current government did was put pressure on those who have Islamic orientation, which is wrong. We respect the society's Islamic identity and work to protect it. We will not carry out the same mistakes. We also seek to communicate with Muslim countries to allow for requirement of skilled and unskilled labor forces from our country which stopped being sent to many countries including Kuwait.
The main problem which led us to the point we are at today lies in the fact that the current government does not look up to Muslim countries but instead thinks from a completely different standpoint. Furthermore, it practices discrimination internally as labor forces are selected on partisan basis instead of qualification, which led to the spread corruption. As for us, we plan to adopt an opposite approach, fight corruption and restore people's faith.

Q: Bangladesh's society has a very large segment of young people. Do you have visions to increase the number of young politicians in your party? And have you prepared leaders to take over leadership after you?
A: I agree that young people make the majority of our society, and therefore the priority of the upcoming government needs to be focused on young people by providing jobs and training to be qualified for employment. Young people have always been a focal point for our party. We pushed a large youth group the last time; and we plan to give them responsibility over state management the next time. Among young members in the party is my son, Tariq, who plays a pivotal role in reinforcing the youth presence in the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and is seen to have the qualities to assume leadership when the right time comes.

Q: What is your vision to solve the Rohingya Muslim crisis? And how do you assess the current government's performance in this regard?
A: We look at the issue from a humanitarian standpoint. The Rohingya Muslims are citizens of Myanmar and with whom we share brotherly relations. It is our duty to help them but not at the expense of losing citizenship of their country. The international community must interfere to protect the Rohingya Muslims' rights in their country of Myanmar. Several problems happened during my previous time at the government, and we welcomed large number of refugees. But at the same time, we never stopped to put pressure through the international community on their government to allow the refugees to return to their home country because our economy and land area cannot sustain their presence, not to mention that separating them from their original society is unacceptable. Unfortunately, the current government failed to follow this strategy or take necessary measures to address this issue.

By Adnan Al-Rashid and Mohammad Musseini

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This article was published on 20/10/2013