Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Mumbai Blasts

The time to soul-search and apportion blame will come. Now, we must stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in India, for they have suffered a deep and grievous wrong.

First, we must wash our dead, and lay them to rest.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Layman's Perspective: Lolitics in Bangladesh

Looking at it at face value, we've had a handful of leaders over the years. H.M. Ershad (who was a president), K. Zia, S. Hasina, (who were prime ministers) and now F. Ahmed (who is a chief adviser; not a politician, but a bureaucrat).

Personally, I will look upon the 2 years of F. Ahmed's premiership with somewhat fond memories. Okay, not exactly fond, but memories accompanied with less dread. He brought some measure of control back to a country on the brink of losing it, he managed a powerful cyclone excellently (just look at how a comparable cyclone that hit Myanmar a few months later caused human suffering an order of magnitude higher than Bangladesh's), coordinated a nation-wide food response which helped the people of Bangladesh cope with hunger where other countries at a similar level of development (like Haiti or Pakistan) suffered much more than we did. And he was erudite, and spoke good English.

K. Zia speaks terrible English, and somewhat faltering Bengali. More seriously, though, she has no personal credentials apart from being the wife of a former dictator (who engaged in wanton political assassinations during his regime and then was eventually assassinated himself). She is only barely educated, and that may be okay for the United States of America, but it shouldn't be for us! (Okay, after suffering 8 years of Dubya, we have a right to poke fun at this. Electing Barack doesn't exonerate you people all of a sudden!)

S. Hasina, though, goes around as an opposition party leader around the world, to the United States, and accuses the incumbents of terrorism. This reflects the psychology of Bangladeshi politics: whatever it takes to win, even if it means blackening the name of your country to others. Even as an opposition party leader, you're still representing Bangladesh when you go abroad. She, however, didn't get the memo.

In all fairness, though, the BNP-Jamaat alliance has engaged in terrorism. And S. Hasina has been a victim of them. The 5-year BNP-Jamaat term has set a dangerous precedent for subsequent elected governments: winning an election gives you the right to attempt to systematically eradicate the opposition.

These two women, though, are two sides of the same coin. In all their time in power, they've enacted many laws for the protection of women's rights, but very little by way of real empowerment has come to women. A woman construction worker, today, in Bangladesh, earns half what a man earns. For the same, back-breaking work.

Acid attacks continue, and very little by way of resolution of these cases ever occur in courts, with few proper public trials to serve as proper deterrents, although these cases cannot be that difficult to solve. The friends of the perpetrators would no doubt be privy to the details of the relationship between the young lady and the criminal in question. We're a country of romantics, after all. It's all poetry, flowers, hugs and kisses until the aqueous hydrogen-sulfate hits the wall.

In the three terms these two women have exchanged the seat of power, the issue of young beggar girls in the streets of Dhaka, sexually, physically, emotionally abused by callous passers-by, by drug-peddlers, by the elements of the variable summer-winter weather, have all largely been ignored.

The last time I went to Bangladesh, I saw with my very own eyes a young girl carrying a baby in a posture in which any other baby would not be able to keep quiet, much less sleep. It was very obviously drugged to sleep, begging in the streets. In the rain. And these two women have done nothing for them.

So we may be able to claim that we elected a woman as a premiere, but it's really not done much at all for people on the ground.

F. Ahmed, on the other hand, is well-spoken and very presentable, but he sounds like an autocrat in all his speeches abroad, by highlighting the pitfalls of an "imperfect union" like his address at the UN General Assembly last year. I think he's a little bit flustered at the negative response of a military-backed caretaker government having to take power in Bangladesh, so when he is abroad, his agenda is dominated by why the military has to settle matters in a country that has been making inroads in consistent civilian rule. All the Western countries collectively went *gasp* when the civilians couldn't settle the issues amicably. But that's not his fault. Politically-speaking, nothing is ever his fault; he's a career bureaucrat, for goodness sake, and he wasn't elected. He deserves some slack, and although he has decidedly underperformed, he has been less bad than the others.

Even a shallow analysis will give the following grade to Bangladeshi politics: fail. This "state of emergency" is the longest running imposition of martial law in a South Asian country since partition. It's unacceptable, but it's not the CTG's (Caretake Government) fault. It's S. Hasina's fault, and K. Zia's fault, because they were too busy inciting riots and fixing elections, that the military had to take over. They were only filling a vacuum created by the incompetent civilians. The CTG has been a force of stability in some ways, like how the Taleban was before they got bombed back to the Stone Age. Not exactly an ideal solution, but at least you can go to and from work to feed the family.

But we really do take things too personally in the sub-continent (and Asia in general). If an employee hands in his resignation, it's all cuss words and "you ingrate" and "how could you stab me in the back." Seriously, boss. It's nothing personal, this is just business. After these politicians cuss each other up in parliament, they should be able to go home, chillax with their families and watch Bohu Brihi. But no, they're in this fight to annihilate each other with ridiculous ideological banter and hyperbole.

Our devotion to our political parties is almost religious, anybody that changes parties is labeled a turncoat, an unacceptable apostasy. Well, I think for a democracy to function, the electorate has to be swingers. It's like Keynes famously noted (roughly paraphrased): "If the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?"

W's worldview is wrong. (paraphrased) "This is a president that believes on Wednesday, what he believed on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday," said Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents Dinner. We need to foster more rational thought in our country, through education and free speech. And then, perhaps, we will be able to achieve "a more perfect union."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

C25K Runner's Program

C25K means Couch Potato '2' 5 Kilometres. It's a program of gradually increasing the endurance of a couch potato (comparable to the endurance of just a potato) to the level of a normal adult Homo sapien: able to run either 5 kilometres or for a half hour, at a stretch, without a break.

I started from week 3 because I'm about 2 weeks fitter than a couch potato. Oh yeah, I'm ripped!

So I Google'ed around for blogs of people who have done the C25K program. None of them go beyond 4 weeks. I think, oh, one of them ended at Week 6. Not a good sign at all, I don't think. Well, here I am telling you. I am now on week 4, week 3 was too easy (I'm ripped!).

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bangladeshi Election Turmoil

The Bangladesh National Party's (BNP) 4-Party Alliance is making a list of 4 demands of the Election Commission (EC). In summary, they are:

1. Lift the State of Emergency
2. Remove some clauses in the amended Representation of the People Order (RPO)
3. Defer Upazila (municipal) elections for a month after the parliamentary polls
4. Reschedule polls to ensure Hajis can cast their votes

Lift the State of Emergency

This makes sense and warrants consideration, and the Caretaker Government is already considering this. The Caretaker Government has reason to be skeptical. The two parties have a penchant for street protests that turn ugly very frequently, and none of these parties have signed off on any common agreement to stop economically disruptive protests (hartal). But an election under what is effectively martial law isn't exactly what I would call ideal.

The State of Emergency has been a Godsend for these 2 years for many people on the ground. The streets haven't been all that much safer, and although the military has come in with its fair share of heavy-handedness, businesses have generally functioned without let or hindrance. Perhaps I'm damning it with faint praise but it could've been a lot worse.

Remove some clauses in the amended RPO

The RPO, first enacted in 1972 is generally a good piece of legislation from what I understand. The legislators from our "founding fathers" were a competent bunch, from the rich tradition of the Pakistan Civil Service and before that, the British Civil Service. 3 parliamentary elections have been held under it so far, as well as a few military dictatorships thrown into the mix (we are a sub-continental country, after all). And some of the amendments made to it this year by the Caretaker Government have also been good, like barring anyone who hasn't paid their utility bills from contesting (you'd think that was obvious).

But as usual, the military's heavy-handedness has to eventually cut through. It's like they get a sense that they're doing well, then suddenly get over-enthusiastic and overshoot. I'm fuzzy on the details here, but it seems like they've added a clause barring teachers from running for public office. I think their intention may be to separate the universities from politics, but this policy sounds heavy-handed (my favorite word for this post).

Let's not forget, the Caretaker Government was the one that tried to put price controls in the telecommunication industry, probably the only sector in Bangladesh that is working perfectly well and serving the population for the collective good, under free-market capitalism.

Defer Municipal Elections for a Month after Parliamentary Polls

I'm not exactly sure as to the reasoning for this, but it's possible they're trying not to over-extend the Election Commission. But with proper management it's possible to vote on more than one thing at a time. Americans in the recent presidential elections very controversially voted for a black president, and voted against gay marriage rights, among other things. This was all on the same ballot.

The big caveat here is that it needs organization and management.

Reschedule Polls to Ensure Hajis Can Cast Their Votes

This is simply preposterous. The BNP and her Jamaat allies have become masters at playing the religion card.

There are no more than 50,000 pilgrims going on the Hajj from Bangladesh according to revised, lower Saudi quotas this year for Bangladeshis. Out of an approximately 80 million-strong voter roll. That's 0.06% of the electorate, and that fraction is probably smaller when you factor in voter turnout.

If their vote is so crucial (which I don't think it is), then the 4-party alliance should have raised this before. After all, we've known elections would be held at the end of 2008 for more than 18 months now. The Election Commission would have evaluated accepting absentee ballots (something I would very much like) for the pilgrims, in that case. If we don't have the capacity to handle absentee ballots, which the Election Commission has already announced, then I don't see a way out.

I don't think this request should be entertained. But then, what do I know about politics in a country I never lived in. The BNP is a monolith in the political landscape, outsized only by its counterpart, the Awami League. If they sneeze, everybody gets wet.


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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)