by Ahmad Shihab 26 September 2021
Authoritarianism is not pretending anymore…its practices and styles basically being smuggled into democratic governments.
–Ivan Krastev (Political Scientist)
Bangladesh seems truly a rich and developed country! Its (according to most, unelected and illegal) Prime Minister chartered a Boeing 787 of Biman, Bangladesh’s national airline, for a two-week (Sept 17-Oct 1, 2021) pleasure trip to Finland and the US, and stayed in the most expensive hotels, at public expense. According to Biman, this Dreamliner has an operating cost of $40,000 an hour, in addition to overflight, transit, parking, security and other ancillary fees. The 300-seat Biman flight carried only the PM and a dozen of her close associates and security details. (A curious passenger recorded the empty interior of the plane and shared it with friends that went viral. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUndybnT7x4&t=424s)
The official statement was that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina left Dhaka on September 17, 2021 for New York to attend the 76th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). She would return home on October 1, 2021. The press statement also said that the PM would make a two-day stopover in Helsinki, Finland, each way.
The reason for the Helsinki break was not given. But when secrecy shrouds an event, rumors–right or wrong– broods. It was to meet her nephew, Radwan Siddiq Bobby, son of Sheikh Rehana, Hasina’s sister. Why is this courtesy call so important? In a Boeing 787? Both ways? Fertile brains discovered the following story.
Since assuming the office of Prime Minister, first in 1996, and then again from January 2009 to date, Sheikh Hasina and her two children Sajeeb Wazed Joy and Saima Wazed Putul have been enjoying all the royal perks and benefits. Sister Sheikh Rehana was made to remain content with a 10% cut from all official contracts. But as Rehana’s son, Radwan Bobby grew older, he did not like to remain content with cash alone. He wanted a share of the power too. Reportedly, there were considerable intra-family tussles on the issue in the past few years. Failing in his objective, an angry Bobby went on self-exile to his in-laws’ place in Helsinki, where he has been living for the last two years. Bobby’s wife is a Finish.
However, the silent battles between the two First Sisters did not stop. Rumors are ripe that Rehana will soon be brought to the administrative limelight and Bobby may be a part in the bargain. The PM might have been worried that her absentee nephew could create trouble for her. So, the Helsinki trip was to appease the nephew.
The 32 Bags
There was more to the Helsinki trip. The luxury plane unloaded 32 large size suitcases in Helsinki. People suspect that the diplomatic cargo contained cash, one estimate was $500 million (Somewhat unbelievable though, but everything is possible in an authoritarian and lawless country like Bangladesh. If Ashraf Gani of Afghanistan could do it, why not Sheikh Hasina?). The sources also suspect that the cash has already been laundered and credited to designated secret accounts in Europe.
According to Dhaka’s The Daily Inqilab of April 26, 2021
Taka 19 crore was withdrawn from the Gulshan branch of the Union Bank alone. Money in foreign currency was also withdrawn from 9 other banks under a VVIP order recently. (In Bangladesh, there are only two VVIPs–the President and the Prime Minister).
The German based Transparency International put Hasina’s Bangladesh as a champion in corruption in 2020. In 2016, nearly one billion US Dollars were stolen from the National Bank, in which top political leaders and Indian hands were suspected. About US$ 8 billion are siphoned out of the country annually.
The UN Saga
Sheikh Hasina had a 141-member entourage, all family members and party loyals. While Hasina had the 300-seat Dreamliner to herself, these delegate members travelled separately. All expenses paid up. Few of them were seen within the UN premises or its activities, not even during Sheikh Hasina’s speech on September 24.
In Bangladesh, usually, an external event of a VIP/VVIP is converted from a mole to a pimple hill to entertain the home crowd, as well as to justify the ostentatious extravaganza. This year, even the moles were missing. What the people saw, so far, was the PM sprinkling গঙ্গাজল (holy water) on a 20-feet tall tree behind a steel bench, said to honor PM’s father (Sheikh Mujib) on the UN lawn. Only four to five domestic men were at hand for the photo opp.
On September 24, Sheikh Hasina delivered her address at an almost empty hall of the UNGA, the main purpose of her two-week long spectacle.
The highlight of the PM’s visit came in the display of naked fascism on September 22, 2021. At a close door press briefing arranged by the local Awami League. Farid Alam, a renowned journalist of NCN, a US TV channel, asked the hosts about the cost effectiveness of the PM’s visit. He said that due to the global Pandemic, most heads of State or Government stayed home or participated virtually. Those who attended physically, had only a few members with them. Whereas, Bangladesh Prime Minister brought along 141 members. The only achievement of the costly visit so far was a photo opportunity while sprinkling water on a tree behind a bench. It was a legitimate question. But for the Hasina’s paid goons, it was an affront on their “great leader.” A pandemonium ensued with wild fistfights. Many were injured. Sympathizers rescued Farid Alam from the claws of the hyenas in a wretched condition with dress torn and bruises all over his body.
Coalition for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh (CHRD Bangladesh) immediately posted a protest note in its website
The report states, among others: “Bangladesh has seen a very concerning and considerable number of attacks on press freedom and its advocates over the years, particularly since the government of Sheikh Hasina has been in power (since 2009).
The Reporters Sans Frontier (RSF) named Sheikh Hasina one of the 37 world leaders who buried press freedom in their countries.
The Prime Minister offered a muted but weird explanation, in a virtual message, to the partymen on September 25, 2021 saying, in her favorite script, that the media disturbance was created by the opposition BNP-Jamaat and killers of Mujib.
Most observers thanked God that the incident happened in New York. Had it been in today’s Bangladesh, a few dead bodies and wounded of the opponents would be rolling on the floor. The loyal law enforcing agencies would “bring the unruly situation under control” by lodging scores in crowded jails with or without dozens of fabricated cases. Within days, many opposition members would face enforced disappearance, never to be seen again. The Odhikar, a Bangladesh Rights Watch Agency, reported that between 2009 and 2020, Hasina’s fascism committed 2,537 extrajudicial killings. More than 600 persons disappeared.
Like father, like daughter.
In 1973, Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, came to the Commonwealth Summit Meeting in Ottawa, Canada, begging money for his country, the bottomless basket he made. He brought along a huge delegation filling a Boeing 707 for the week-long trip. The late Singapore Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who attended the same meeting, travelling in commercial flights, wrote in his memoirs that he saw the Bangladesh plane parked when he arrived and saw it at the same place when he was leaving, further commenting that the man came to beg “money for his country.”
Below are a few images of what the father-daughter duo represented.
Writer is a rights activist. Authored a few books.