Begums of Bangladesh.
From Dhaka, the Capital of Bangladesh, Jeremy Page writes about the two main female and feuding figures, dominating the fate of the one of the worlds poorest countries, who let and lead their own people to kill and die by their followers. I think people of Bangladesh must wake up and find an alternative to get rid of this enigma. This is one of the countries, breathing on foreign aids and on its shunned Citizens living and struggling around the world only to remit money home, known as wage earners. How long this country can survive as bottom-less basket?- Arif Bhuiyan, Essex, UK
Battling begums blight Bangladesh
(with See-saw clash at the end)
Jeremy Page in Dhaka
Elections stalled by damaging feud
Return of army rule is feared
As political soap operas go, few come as melodramatic as the rivalry between the two political doyennes of Bangladesh.
Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed, alternately Prime Minister and Opposition Leader for the past 16 years, do not just disagree. They hate each other with such venom that they have not spoken in a decade and cannot stand to be in the same room.
Ever since they united briefly to topple the last military dictator of Bangladesh in 1990, their feuding has defined politics and claimed hundreds of lives in this nation of 145 million. Now it has placed Bangladeshs fragile democracy in jeopardy and raised the spectre of the worlds third-largest Muslim country returning to military rule.
Three weeks ago, bloody clashes between their supporters prompted the Army to force the President to impose a state of emergency and cancel an election scheduled for January 22. A caretaker government led by a former World Bank official and backed by the army has promised to restore order and hold new elections as soon as possible.
But most people doubt that that will happen before June and possibly not this year. With 33,000 people arrested since the emergency began on January 11, some argue that the army has, in effect, staged a silent coup. Many people would prefer this to a choice between the begums.
"In 1991 we thought, Wow, weve done it. Weve got a functioning two-party democracy," Mahfuz Anam, editor of the Daily Star newspaper, said. "But since then the reverse has happened, and the core reason is this rivalry."
Mrs Wajed, the 59-year-old leader of the opposition Awami League, insists that her personal feelings played no role in her decision to boycott and disrupt the election. "Its nothing personal its ideological," she told The Times. "Youre only writing this because its two females."
Within a few minutes she accused Mrs Zia of leading a band of "thieves, rapists and murderers" who robbed the nation and rigged the election. "Last time she was in power, she killed so many of our people. They tortured our girls. Then there was an [assassination] attempt on me," she said.
Her animosity is rooted in the blood-soaked early history of Bangladesh, which began as East Pakistan in 1947 and then won independence from Pakistan in 1971.
Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was the countrys first leader, until he was assassinated with 17 family members in a coup in 1975. Mrs Wajed remains convinced that Mrs Zias husband, General Ziaur Rahman, played a role in the coup.
Mrs Zia denies that and accuses the Awami League of involvement in the assassination of her husband, who ruled from 1977 to 1981.
The 61-year-old head of the Bangladesh National Party declined to be interviewed, but a senior official described her relationship with Mrs Wajed as not that cordial. "Circumstances have put these women in two different corners," he said. "Both have sacrificed a lot and suffered a lot."
Critics of both women say that they have turned Bangladeshi politics into a violent and corrupt zero-sum contest, often fought out on the streets.
The latest violence began when Mrs Zia stepped down as Prime Minister in October and handed power to a supposedly non-partisan caretaker government, mandated to organise the election. But the Awami League said that it was biased and organised strikes and demonstrations that paralysed the country and left at least 45 people dead.
Election observers say there is no doubt that the Bangladesh National Party tried to rig the poll there were 12.2 million duplicate names on voter lists and yesterday five top election officials were suspended.
The real problem is that in a country racked by poverty, disease and annual flooding, neither party represents anything more than its vested interests. Most people were relieved rather than outraged when the service chiefs forced the President to cancel the elections even though 19 of the thousands of people arrested under the caretaker administration are reported to have died in custody.
Western diplomats say that the generals prevented a bloodbath that could have turned Bangladesh into a failed state and a haven for Islamic extremists. The High Court has suspended all election-related activity for three months. Many hope the interim regime will stay in office far longer than that so that it can push through reforms that could break the begums grip on politics.
When Mrs Zia became Prime Minister in 1991, she changed history books to portray her husband, rather than Mrs Wajeds father, as the hero of independence
When Mrs Wajed took over in 1996, she changed them back and had her fathers portrait hung in government offices
When Mrs Zia returned in 2001, the portraits were removed and textbooks re-written again
When Jimmy Carter, the former US President, tried to get them to shake hands in 2001, they refused even to look at each other!
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