On Bangladesh today and tomorrow

On Bangladesh today and tomorrow

After six months of effective martial law and widespread political purges imposed by military anti-corruption squads under the caretaker government, we now begin to hear reports of class struggle reappearing.

Much of last year was spent in conflict between the two main parties, the Bangladesh National Party (NBP) and the Awami League (AL), as they squabbled over the details of rules and procedures for the General Election. In an apparent bid to end the stalemate, and the increasing social instability it brought, a caretaker government was put in place in January 2007. (It's likely this move was encouraged or even proposed by foreign diplomatic pressure from such as the USA, EU and UN.) This government quickly gave full powers to the military and police to begin a ruthless 'anti-corruption' purge of all the main political parties and many other related criminal elements in business. Over 100,000 people have been arrested and jails are overflowing; there have been 'deaths in custody'. Both the BNP and AL have had their leaders and organisers thrown into jail by fast-track mobile courts; the leaderships have been banished to permanent exile in the USA and Saudi Arabia. Since the declaration of emergency severe restrictions have been imposed on press reporting, political organising is banned (including trade unions) and the General Election has been postponed: originally for a few months, now at least until late 2008. The security forces have decimated the political elite of Bangladesh and repossessed much of their wealth gained from corruption, land grabs, imported luxury cars, real estate, unaccounted-for hoardings etc. It is uncertain, and will be determined partly by international influence, but is possible that a return to parliamentary democracy may continue to be indefinitely postponed as the military become accustomed to power. Class society knows many variations of rule.

Chittagong port
Of course the reality of this anti-corruption purge is not as it is represented, supposedly to create a fairer society for the impoverished of the country. The history of the emergence of an independent Bangladesh in the 1970s and its weak economic development has made ample opportunity for political corruption on a grand scale. It has also perpetuated the underdevelopment. In this instance the culture of corruption has meant an inefficient economy with local greed undermining central planning, investment and accumulation. The present 'anti-corruption purge' is an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone; erase the old guard political elite who were a parasitical drain on economic growth, please modernisers at home and abroad and push ahead with privatisations. A recent move to deal with the rampant corruption at the main dock port, at Chittagong in the south of the country, is also an act of accelerating privatisation of various labour processes at the port. Previous proposals for privatisation in recent years were met with strikes. Now compulsory redundancy has been imposed on older workers and piecemeal privatisation of particular sectors of the dock operation have occurred.

The local Chittagong political clique was until recently headed by the city mayor as an outpost of the previous BNP government. His cronies acted as dock union officials and fleeced the businesses dependent for import and export trade on Chittagong as a main transport link. Bribery and extortion were the norm in securing safe passage for cargo and nothing moved on the waterfront without the mayor's say-so.

"It appeared that at the root of all the problems lay greed, corruption and parochial interests. The vested interest groups are composed of not only government and port officials and labor unions, but also corrupt politicians and private sector enterprises providing services to maritime transportation.
It's a huge and complex Gordian knot with many layers.
" (Ghulam Rahman, former shipping ministry secretary, 'Forum', March 07)

For years the dock was one of the most expensive and least efficient - it was also said to be "the second most pirate infested port in the world,". This apparently benefitted the workers to a degree, in terms of pace of work rather than financially (though surely, like dockworkers the world over, they will top up their 'social wage' by regular pilfering of cargo when possible). The mayor and his clique here had an interest in a slower normal turn-around time (6-12 days) for ships as it meant those in a hurry to fulfill orders in a competitive market would always pay more for faster service. (Chittagong has much slower processing times than other international ports of comparable size. This can only partly be accounted for by less investment in machinery/infrastructure.)

But the military anti-corruption squads have now taken the mayor and his clique out of circulation, sending them to jail, exile or into hiding. Investment in new equipment such as cranes has also improved efficiency. One must bear in mind though that crackdown on corrupt union officials will also likely be part of a wider crackdown attacking workers' militancy; the union officials were probably like most unions in Bangladesh, who call strikes mainly to protect their own narrow political and financial interests. Whereas most strikes in the workers' own direct interests appear to be organised by workers themselves. To the cops and the bosses right now, the difference is probably irrelevant and beside the point.

Chittagong port is also a target for the security forces as it is the centre of the country's arms smuggling trade which has been dominated by the ruling parties. Several of the illegal gun factories in the town have been shut down.

Jute mill strikes
In the last two weeks there have been reports of strikes in the jute mill industry at Khalishpur industrial belt in the south western city of Khulna, the country's third largest city . On the morning of Wednesday 19th April 2,000 workers from four mills demonstrated to demand payment of owed back wages. Clashes with cops occurred when workers began to block roads with burning tyres and attempted to build barricades. Workers said police fired tear gas and rubber bullets. At one point police retreated into a 'police box' [presumably a sentry box or small hut] near one of the mill gates. The workers promptly set fire to it. Clashes continued until the evening; there were 50 injuries in the clashes, including 4 cops.

Prices of essential foodstuffs continue to rise and inflation eats further into some of the lowest wage levels in the world of the Bangladeshi poor. Whether the class struggle has dramatically lessened since the state of emergency or press reports stopped due to pressure and reporting restrictions from the caretaker government is uncertain. Perhaps a little of both - seeing the blatantly corrupt political elite experience military repression for a change must have its attractions for the poor, though it could also encourage illusions in anti-corruption squads as a new saviour come to solve the problems of class society.

Policing of the garment industry, centre of class struggle in the country (see previous reports ), has presumably tightened too. The wage rises agreed by garment bosses last year have never been delivered and have anyway long ago been eaten away by inflation; though some workplace improvements have been reported, mainly as a response to pressure from western buyers worried about damage to corporate image from revelations of use of sweatshop labour.

The future?
There are two directions the security forces and their caretaker government can take in relation to the working class; if the military see themselves as a liberalising force (as a section of the Portugese Army did in the 1970's - though in very different circumstances) then they may not provoke a decisive clash with workers and the wider poor and will probably eventually sanction labour reforms in the factories. The fact that there have not been any such major clashes reported so far lends some validity to this view (though like much of what is said here, it is speculation based on the limited available information). The dominant faction of the military may be identifying with the modernising RMG (ready made garment) sector, the country's dominant industry, with it's growing international trade and rapidly expanding economy. This may explain why there has been very little reported anti-corruption activity against the RMG bosses or repression of garment worker trade unionists. The most forward thinking elements in the military would, in their terms, be correct to see this as the right horse to back for long term interests of capitalist development in Bangladesh.

But, alternatively, if the security forces are settling in for a long term military rule they will at some point have to confront the working class. In the absence of establishing more subtle mediations such as workers rights and union representation which would be more likely outcomes of a move towards parliamentary democracy, then more blunt methods may be deployed. In order to consolidate its power base and defeat its greatest ultimate threat, the military may feel they have to show who is boss by a decisive clash with the working class. A working class that in Bangladesh, more than in most places, has little to lose and everything to gain.