Bangladesh - Domestic policy

At the top of Zia's agenda upon taking control of the government was rejuvenation of the stagnant economy and finding a solution to the increasing outbreaks of violence, generally attributed to Islamic militants. Zia's Council of Ministers, made up of 60 members, is comprised of individuals who are experienced and loyal government insiders.

In late 2001, the country's high court asked the Zia government to investigate its own programs to protect the Hindu minority in the country. Judicial officials were responding to charges that Hindus were increasingly being subjected to persecution and that Hindu refugees were fleeing Bangladesh for India. In April 2002, Zia met with Chakma tribal leader Shantu Larma regarding the peace accord for the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Zia had spoken against the five-year-old accord, but now appeared committed to its continuation.

Terrorism (particularly bomb explosions in public places such as movie theaters) has been common in Bangladesh, apparently the result of local grudges as much as Islamic extremism. Controversy arose over possible al-Qaeda links to the BNP due to its coalition with Islamist hard-line parties. A much-publicized government list of Bangladesh's "mostwanted terrorists" produced only four arrests in the administration's first year. The opposition claimed that many criminals operated with impunity because of connections to Zia's ruling party.

The need to suppress violent criminal activity, which is often gang related, occupies much of Zia's attention. Police forces are understaffed, particularly in the sprawling capital, Dhaka, although steps were taken to recruit 5,000 more police in early 2003. Crime statistics continue to climb. According to an October 2002 BBC News report, "On average, 325 people are murdered in the country every month, a further 300 are raped, and there are around 18 acid attacks." In October 2002, facing increasing criticism, Zia called out the army for an anticrime campaign, "Operation Clean Heart," in which over 10,000 people were detained, of whom at least 44 died. Zia's own party members were not immune to arrest. The opposition claimed that the anticrime campaign was a dictatorial mass violation of human rights. The campaign, in which more than 25,000 troops participated, began to wind down in January 2003.

In the first six months of her government, Khaleda Zia's major accomplishment—introducing compulsory education and expanding educational opportunities for girls—reflected her personal priorities. Zia has said that the key to economic progress is an educated workforce that includes women. She also proposed legislation with tougher penalties for perpetrators of acid attacks against women.

Khaleda Zia had pledged during the campaign to eliminate corruption in the government. This followed the usual pattern of being directed at the previous administration, and in March 2002 the government filed corruption charges against the main party opposition leader (and former prime minister) Sheik Hasina. This action triggered protests in the capital, Dhaka. Sheik Hasina and six of her fellow Awami League Party members were charged with financial irregularities in connection with the building of a planetarium and purchase of Russian aircraft. Awami League leaders characterized the charges as political.

Bangladesh's economy has stayed weak, with export earnings depressed. A rise in fuel prices in January 2003 brought on an Awami League-inspired general strike in an ironic replay of the tactics used by Zia's BNP to destabilize the Awami League when it was in power.

Some progress has been made on environmental issues. Causes of pollution, such as two-stroke engine "baby taxis" and disposable plastic bags, were banned in many areas. Public health and innovative poverty-reduction programs continue. While arsenic contamination of drinking water remains a public health crisis, a major step forward was made when it was discovered that cholera could be prevented by filtering water through old sari (women's traditional dress) cloth.

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