Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Rubab Khan's

Selection of FA as speaker for Columbia's World Leaders Forum has raised a sort of debate. Read this:

By Rubab Khan


Along with the usual array of accomplished presidents and prime ministers, this year, Columbia's World Leaders Forum is hosting Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, the chief adviser of the Caretaker Government of Bangladesh. Ever since his pseudomilitary regime took office in Dhaka, rampant human rights violations have become the state's hallmark. Before questioning his place at the Forum, it is worth taking a look at recent events in Bangladesh.

The unusual electoral process of Bangladesh requires an outgoing government to hand over power to a nonpartisan administration for three months to prepare for polls. This process failed when the last elected government installed a bunch of puppets to hold a farcical election. As a result, massive protests led to the military stepping in and establishing a government comprised of retired bureaucrats and ex-military officers. They promised to clean up the corrupt political system and hold elections, but the prospect of change evaporated as the government started handpicking whom to prosecute for corruption, and toward whom to turn a blind eye. The latter group was comprised almost exclusively of members and leaders of the powerful fundamentalist political elements who had little electoral chance, yet whose leaders roam in Bangladeshi politics using piles of money procured from global fundamentalist networks.

Under the state of emergency rules, the regime suspended fundamental rights and prohibited the media from publishing critical stories, and military officers briefed news editors. Military camps were set up in every major university and the army started ordering around university administrations.

At the end of August, the military personnel severely beat a number of students and a faculty member at the University of Dhaka, the largest university of Bangladesh. As a result, student protests spread across campuses throughout the country. They were joined by disgruntled common people who were fed up with a 40 percent increase in the price of essentials and closure of numerous industrial factories. Though the government grudgingly withdrew the army camp from the university gymnasium, thousands of police continued to batter students. On the third day of violence, the protesters set an army vehicle on fire. A curfew was immediately declared, and college dormitories were vacated. Thousands of soldiers conducted door-to-door searches and picked up students. Deans of three schools of the University of Dhaka were arrested, along with eight other senior faculty members. All of them were tortured indiscriminately.
The military responded to the publication of a photo in many Bangladeshi papers, of a student kicking a solider, by arresting and severely beating over 250 journalists. International publications are still censored in the country.

For example, two critical articles from The Economist (one from the Aug. 23, 2007 issue and one from Sept. 6, 2007) were ripped off before the magazine's distribution in Bangladesh. This caused Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, the largest human rights organization in the U.S., to say, "Ripping out pages from an international magazine is the hallmark of a dictatorship, not a caretaker government committed to reform and the rule of law."

All this paints a pretty grim picture of Dr. Ahmed's despotic rule, so why did Columbia to invite him to speak?

This is not the first time something like this has happened. Last year, Pakistan's military ruler President Musharraf honored the World Leaders Forum with his presence. Today, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad spoke.

University Professor Jagdish Bhagwati, the University's most distinguished expert on South Asian economics and a member of the University Senate, was not consulted on the issue of the invitation to Dr. Ahmed, although he has stated that he thinks that it is better to invite disagreeable people and to subject them to debate. This lack of consultation implies that it was not Dr. Ahmed's profile as an economist that earned him the invitation.

Maybe my research-lab postdoctorate had a closer guess. She suggested that perhaps lobbyists got paid by the Bangladeshi government to convince the University to ask him to speak. We will never know for sure, but what we do know is that attending a major forum at one of the world's leading institutions of scholarship will help the despotic ruler to wash off some of the stigma he earned from the most recent brutal repression of Bangladesh's academia and press.Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed should not have been invited by Columbia to the World Leaders Forum, since he simply does not deserve it.

This conference is for distinguished foreign leaders. Ahmed is neither a legitimate leader of his people—even under the state of emergency, the government's tenure formally expired after the first four months—nor does his making academia and the press the primary victims of repression give him any extra credit. I hope that the Columbia administration will regain its senses and give the issue some serious thought.

The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in astrophysics.

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