The conviction of Khaleda Zia hobbles Bangladesh’s opposition

KHALEDA ZIA has been in and out of the courts for over a decade. She has been charged in 37 different cases, most concerning corruption or abuse of power during her two stints as prime minister, in 1991-96 and 2001-06. But the verdict reached on February 8th was momentous.

It was Mrs Zia’s first conviction, for stealing cash in 1991 from a trust for orphans founded in memory of her late husband, Ziaur Rahman, a coup leader who became president before being killed in a coup himself. Mrs Zia, who leads the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), currently in opposition, was sentenced to five years in jail. Although she may yet be freed pending appeals to the High Court and the Supreme Court, her fate appears sealed.

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The verdict formalises the collapse of Bangladesh’s two-party system and the demise of the Zia dynasty. The BNP and the Awami League (AL), the party currently in power, used to alternate in government. Mrs Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the prime minister and leader of the AL, were known as the two begums—the two powerful women who towered over Bangladeshi politics. But Mrs Zia’s power has been waning for the past decade, as first an army-backed government and then two AL ones bombarded her with lawsuits. The BNP’s boycott of the most recent election, in 2014, in protest at the AL’s alteration of the constitution to avoid handing power to a politically neutral caretaker government during the vote, left it without a single MP.

The BNP’s slogan used to run, “Khaleda Zia is our leader. Ziaur Rahman is our philosophy. Tarique Rahman is our future.” But Mrs Zia is 72, is in ill health and, as a result of the verdict, may not be able to contest future elections. And Tarique Rahman, her son and political heir, is in exile. He, too, faces multiple criminal charges related to his mother’s second term, which saw Bangladesh ranked as the world’s most corrupt country five years running.

The verdict comes just a week after Sheikh Hasina announced that a parliamentary election would be held in December. No one imagines she has any intention of losing. In 2014 she put Mrs Zia under house arrest and confined Mohammad Ershad, an ageing former dictator and leader of the third-biggest party, to an army hospital. The courts barred Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious party allied to the BNP, from taking part since the constitution defines Bangladesh as a secular state—another change the AL had pushed through parliament.

Yet the government would like the BNP to take part this time to prevent the election from looking as farcical as that of 2014, when less than half the seats were contested. The Election Commission says the BNP’s participation is needed to hold a meaningful vote. Even the AL’s otherwise silent backer, India, has publicly called for “participatory” polls.

In theory Mrs Zia has no choice: the law stipulates that her party must participate or be deregistered. The ruling party can also offer inducements such as plum government jobs and the dropping of lawsuits. The BNP, or parts of it, Dhaka’s chattering classes assume, may prefer a respectable block in parliament to political oblivion.

For the moment, however, the BNP is unyielding. On February 3rd its top brass affirmed that it will boycott the election unless it is held under a neutral government. As if to prove their point, the government arrested more than 1,100 BNP leaders and activists this week. It also put up checkpoints to keep opposition protesters out of the capital, Dhaka. BNP grandees have warned that the crackdown and conviction are weakening moderates in the party and emboldening those who advocate violence against the government.

That won’t scare Sheikh Hasina much. She faced down bombings and arson at polling stations in 2014. And she has been careful to butter up the army, doubling its size over the past ten years and building it lots of new bases. It is hard to see how she might be dislodged.

The Philippines is struggling to rebuild after a fight with IS

THE silence is startling. The only sound is the slight creaking of the metal strips peeling off bombed buildings like bandages. A fancy light fixture hangs askance in what might have been a dining room. Elsewhere dirty toys lie in piles defecated on by dogs. The animals are healthier here than elsewhere in Marawi, says one local, because they ate the bodies of those killed in the fighting last year.

The conflict between fighters linked with Islamic State (IS) and the Philippine armed forces ended in October, after five months of destruction. More than 800 jihadists died alongside 163 soldiers and at least 47 civilians. The rebuilding, especially of the heavily damaged eastern half of the city, has barely begun.

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Marawi is a troubled spot on a troubled island. Mindanao is home to most of the Philippines’ 6m or so Muslims, a minority that often feels discriminated against by the country’s 97m-odd Christians. Conflicts abound—between the state and groups wanting autonomy, or religious militants, or restive clans, or communist insurgents, or bandits and pirates.

Few realised the danger when one crew of Muslim insurgents-cum-kidnappers, Abu Sayyaf, pledged allegiance to IS in 2015. A botched attempt to detain one of its leaders in May unleashed the violence in Marawi. The Maute group, another violent outfit that was once considered a mere local mafia, joined the fray, too, after aligning with IS. Romeo Omet Brawner, a colonel who helped lead operations to retake the city, says the government’s victory required its forces to advance on the insurgents from the rear. The offensive took months, because attempts to cross the three bridges over the Agus river proved deadly. He believes the “decisiveness” of Rodrigo Duterte, the president, and the resulting declaration of martial law in July, led to the army’s victory.

From tents to sheds

Miles from the city, small clusters of yellow tents line the road. Some 200,000 people, almost the entirety of Marawi’s population, were displaced by the conflict. Fewer than half of them have been able to return. Felix Castro of the Task Force Bangon Marawi, which co-ordinates government agencies working in the area, worries about sanitation and how to move families into temporary, shed-like shelters newly built for them. The displaced say they are tired of eating handouts of rice and want to go home. One woman explains that when the fighting broke out, she told her mother to pack only three changes of clothes because they thought they would not be away for long.

Financial and legal complications are stalling homecomings. On Marawi’s western side the mayor, Majul Usman Gandamra, sits in a meeting room just metres from where a mortar landed during the conflict. The municipal building smells of fresh paint. He believes it will cost 49bn pesos ($956m) to pay for reconstruction. Water and electricity are still unavailable in swathes of the city. He laments the war’s toll on the economy, especially because poverty helped drive youngsters to the jihadists’ cause in the first place, he says. (Some recruits received payments of 300,000 pesos on joining and salaries of a sort.) Disputes over property, created by a lack of formal land titles, are preventing families from returning to the city, too. “But we cannot allow our enemies to use that against the government,” Mr Gandamra insists. Local, regional and national officials meet often to discuss what to do.

Many doubt the politicians’ claims that the city can be rebuilt better than before. Amid the piles of rubble such pessimism is understandable. Colonel Brawner says just clearing unexploded bombs and hidden devices will take until August. One local academic reckons it would be cheaper to abandon efforts to revive the eastern side of the city altogether and just build new homes elsewhere instead. But the national government’s commitment to reconstruction seems steadfast. A new military camp is to be built where the ruined town hall stands. Mr Duterte himself appeared, albeit briefly, at a ground-breaking ceremony on January 30th.

Other efforts to restore the city are less tangible. “If there ever is a rebuilding it also has to involve a sense of rebuilding people’s values,” says Datumanong Sarangani, a professor at Mindanao State University. Muslim leaders are working with different branches of government to develop tactics for discouraging the spread of extremism. The curriculum at local Islamic schools is being scrutinised. More practically, almost 3,000 displaced residents have taken part in government-run training programmes, which offer instruction in everything from baking to welding, in an effort to improve livelihoods and so reduce the allure of jihadists’ cash.

Mr Duterte, for decades the mayor of Mindanao’s biggest city, Davao, made bringing peace to the island a centrepiece of his election campaign. He is currently pushing for changes to the constitution to allow greater autonomy for Muslim areas, in keeping with a peace deal a previous government signed with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an insurgency which has fought for independence for Mindanao since the 1980s. This matters because any resumption of hostilities with MILF, which has thousands of fighters, could lead to even greater destruction than the rag-tag rebels in Marawi managed.

The Philippines’ allies also want peace in the region. After the eruption of violence in Marawi, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore all offered military assistance. America and Australia provided technological support. And international anti-piracy patrols stepped up a gear. The emergence of IS in South-East Asia—first signalled in January 2016 by a bombing in Jakarta—has scared leaders already wrestling with home-grown terrorism. Jihadists seem to have converged on Marawi from Indonesia and Malaysia as well as Chechnya and Saudi Arabia, testifying to the strength and reach of IS’s propaganda. Securing, supporting and restoring Marawi could provide a more lasting victory over such extremism in the Philippines. But it may prove even harder to achieve than the military advance.

Asian leaders are in the vanguard of social media

WHEN he is not lifting minuscule weights or catering to the whims of his cats, Najib Razak somehow finds time to be Malaysia’s prime minister—or so his feed on Instagram, a photo-sharing app, implies. Hun Sen, Cambodia’s strongman, apparently dedicates most of his time to posing for selfies with adoring young Cambodians, if his Facebook page is to be believed. And then there is Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, who assures his followers on Instagram: “Every moment of my life is devoted to the welfare of India.” That cannot be quite true, as quite a lot of it is devoted to social media, most notably Twitter. He has tweeted more than five times a day, on average, since joining the microblogging service in 2009. He has more than 40m followers, just 7.5m behind Donald Trump, and over 33m more than the combined following of Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, and Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister.

Like Mr Trump, Asian leaders have discovered that social-media platforms are very useful for communicating with voters and seizing the attention of the press. As smartphones proliferate, so does the potential audience. Thailand, with a population of 69m, has 47m Facebook users. Malaysia, with 31m people, has 22m.

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Different platforms suit different purposes. Facebook is the top choice for pushing policies, says Terrence Ngu of StarNgage, a Singaporean company which runs social-media campaigns; Instagram is now the main way “to promote personalities”. Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, shares dreamy panoramic photos from his holidays on Instagram. His government recently got locals with lots of followers, such as emcees and bloggers, to hype #SGBudget in a desperate bid to spark youthful excitement about its fiscal plans.

Joko Widodo, the president of Indonesia, is deft across many platforms, but his true love is YouTube. His selfie-style “vlogging”, tagged #JKWVLOG, delights hundreds of thousands. At a recent summit in Germany, he got both Mr Trudeau and Mr Macron to record a quick hello to the people of Indonesia, an arm draped over his shoulder.

It is hard to beat Mr Modi for innovation, however. He has created an app that bundles all his social-media offerings. It can be downloaded in 12 Indian languages and offers snazzy infographics on government policy as well as titillating articles on the prime minister’s fashion choices (“When simplicity becomes style: the story behind the Modi Kurta”).

Of course, all this sharing can backfire. Hun Sen, who has run Cambodia for more than 30 years, was mocked in 2016 when it became obvious he was buying “likes” for his Facebook page. And not all those who peruse Mr Najib’s Instagram account are converted. “Stupidest PM yet,” declares one commentator. “Fuck you fatty,” says another.

The president of the Maldives has lost all legitimacy but kept his job

FIRST soldiers and police surrounded the Supreme Court in Malé, the claustrophobic, sea-girt capital of the Maldives. Then, earlier this week, they hauled off the chief justice and two associates in the dead of night. Abdulla Yameen has racked up many accomplishments since becoming president of the strategic archipelago in 2013, from befriending China and Saudi Arabia to hounding both the opposition and leaders of his own coalition, intimidating the remains of a free press and, earlier this month, shutting parliament. Now he has suspended much of the constitution and declared a 15-day state of emergency.

Mr Yameen may have become a full-blown dictator, but he seems to see himself as the victim of a monstrous injustice. The court, he claims, was paving the way for a coup by nefarious forces. How else to explain its actions on February 1st, when it ordered the release of political prisoners and the reinstatement of MPs who had crossed over to the opposition? The chief justice must have been bribed, he says. To make matters worse, two police chiefs had to be fired before a third could be found who would ignore the court’s orders. (He is said to be so unpopular that underlings shout at him in the canteen.)

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Grievance and paranoia come naturally to the president. A former ally, Ahmed Adeeb, is one of those whom the court ordered released. Talk about ingratitude. Mr Yameen gave him his leg-up. He even changed the constitution to give him the vice-presidency, reducing the minimum age to hold the state’s top posts. Mr Adeeb repaid him by getting caught pilfering $79m from the tourism board. He was duly sacked—as a fall guy, the president’s critics say; as a lone bad apple, he insists. It must be galling that few believe Mr Yameen’s claim that an explosion on the presidential speedboat was an assassination attempt by Mr Adeeb.

It is also unfair that Mr Yameen—stiff, macho and prone to referring to himself in the third person—lacks the charisma of the previous dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. He ruled for 30 years, during which the Maldives won its image with tourists as a coral-island Eden, but his wiliness failed him when he was ousted in the islands’ first democratic election, in 2008. Later he backed Mr Yameen’s rise to power. He is his half-brother, after all.

In families, however, gratitude can taste like vinegar—especially when the rest of the clan know that your mother first entered the household as a maid. Mr Yameen intended the same constitutional change that elevated Mr Adeeb to bar Mr Gayoom from returning to power, by setting an upper age limit of 65. Yet far from retiring, the octogenarian Mr Gayoom has infuriatingly rebranded himself as a liberal democrat. On the night the court was purged, Mr Gayoom was also arrested and dispatched to the prison island of Dhoonidhoo (even as his son was released). That the police arresting Mr Gayoom saluted him might, to a sensitive president, count as one more grievance.

A population of about 400,000—a third crammed onto Malé’s six square kilometres—makes the Maldives a tiny place, even if its 1,200 islands are spread across a vast expanse of the Indian Ocean. All politics is personal, and odd combinations can form.

Just one example is that one person calling for Mr Gayoom’s release from Dhoonidhoo is his nemesis in 2008, Mohamed Nasheed (whom the former dictator had once had tortured in the very same place). Mr Nasheed’s tumultuous four years in power before a murky coup were, however imperfect, the Maldives’ first attempt at representative government. His conviction on trumped-up charges of terrorism was one of those that the Supreme Court overturned.

From Sri Lanka, Mr Nasheed remains a thorn in Mr Yameen’s side—though hopes a week ago of an early return were dashed with the suspension of constitutional government. Mr Nasheed urges America to sanction Mr Yameen’s cronies. He has called upon India, for centuries the regional power, to intervene. So far, both countries have merely deplored developments.

For now Mr Yameen has the advantage. He looks determined to hang on through elections later this year—if he holds them at all. Crucially, he holds the money. As the sun sets over Malé, the 1.5km bridge under construction between the capital and the airport island lights up with clear red lettering: “CHINA MALDIVES EVERLASTING FRIENDSHIP”. It is the biggest of several Chinese projects, backed by Chinese loans, that include a hospital and a big expansion of the airport. There is no public tendering, and no budgets have been published. Diplomats and NGOs suspect costs have been wildly inflated.

Not even the monetary authority has any handle on the debts the Maldives is amassing, but thinks three-fifths are owed to China. Any default, and China can extract concessions, such as a base on the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, everyone assumes Chinese cash is lining politicians’ pockets and paying for political largesse.

The isle is full of noises

A tiny part of that largesse was going this week to young gang members being flown to Malé from distant atolls to add to the numbers showing support for Mr Yameen, even as he breaks up opposition rallies. The gangs embody a strange confluence of street politics, criminality and Islamist fervour, the latter introduced by Saudi Arabian charities in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. They have brought dramatic change to islands that have traditionally nurtured a very tolerant form of Islam.

Mr Yameen is happy to identify with this new form, painting his critics at home and abroad as enemies of Islam. He is thought to be mulling “In the name of God” as a campaign slogan. But Mr Yameen knows he cannot rely on God alone. “Maldivian Idol”, a hugely popular televised singing competition, was abruptly put on hold during last week’s political tensions. The rumour is that it will soon be back on again—proof of normality amid the swirling political currents of this most peculiar of island republics.

The Maldives’ Supreme Court abruptly orders the release of several opposition politicians

FEBRUARY began with Abdulla Yameen in complete charge of Maldivian politics. One by one, he had seen off his political opponents. The courts had meekly convicted his predecessor-but-one as president, his vice president, his defence minister and the heads of two opposition parties. They had also awarded him control of the ruling party, which was being contested by his half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Mr Yameen’s predecessor-but-two, who had ruled as a dictator for 30 years. The Election Commission stripped 12 opposition MPs of their seats, and the Supreme Court made it impossible for pro-government MPs to defect to the opposition and keep their parliamentary jobs. That protected Mr Yameen from impeachment, among other inconveniences.

So it came as quite a surprise when the same Supreme Court overturned all these decisions out of the blue late on February 1st. The trials of all the opposition figures, it declared, had been politically motivated. They should be retried, it said, and released in the meantime. As for the deposed opposition MPs, they should be reinstated, depriving Mr Yameen’s government of its majority in parliament. “The Supreme Court’s verdict effectively ends President Yameen’s authoritarian rule,” announced a jubilant statement from the opposition.

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America, Britain and India, all of which have been alarmed by Mr Yameen’s cosy relationship with China, welcomed the ruling, but the government did not seem as enthusiastic. Mohamed Anil, the attorney-general, cast doubt on its authenticity, saying he would “vet and clarify” the ruling. Another minister denounced it as a coup. The chief of police had tweeted that he would follow the judges’ orders, but at a midnight press conference Mr Anil explained that the president had dismissed him. There was no sign that the court’s orders had been followed.

Instead, the police, under new management, began to fire tear gas at the jubilant crowds of opposition supporters who were thronging the streets of Male, the capital. Meanwhile, Mohamed Nasheed, the former president whose conviction has now been quashed, prevaricated about returning from exile in Sri Lanka. He did call on Mr Yameen to resign, but that seems unlikely. Just last week, Mr Yameen suggested he would intervene in any institution of state that he thought was “losing its way”, including the courts.

The opposition’s anger at Mr Yameen’s growing authoritarianism was bound to come to a head at some point, not least because a huge corruption scandal has engulfed his government. Al-Jazeera, an international broadcaster, recorded a former bagman claiming that he had carried suitcases of cash between the former vice-president and the president, although the government insists that the president was not involved.

Scandal swirls around Thailand’s junta at an awkward moment

TIME is currently of the essence in Thailand. In December a photo of Prawit Wongsuwan, the deputy prime minister, wearing a luxury watch caught the attention of activists. The timepiece appeared to be worth more than $100,000. How could the general afford such an item on his modest military salary and why had he not mentioned it in the declaration of assets he made on taking office? Since then social-media vigilantes have uncovered pictures of him wearing 25 different watches worth around $1.2m, including 11 Rolexes. A bad situation was made worse when Mr Prawit lamely explained that he had borrowed them all from friends.

The prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, defended his brother-in-arms last month, saying public and private matters should not be confused. He also said it was up to the National Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate. But the commission has not yet thought it necessary to open a full probe into the affair. Its boss instead helpfully pointed out that, if the watches were the property of others, Mr Prawit, who claimed assets of just over $2.6m on his form, would not have needed to declare them. (That view suggests that bribing an official is legal, as long as the bribe is a loan.)

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Despite such bluster on the general’s behalf, the fuss will not go away. This week the director of the polling arm of the National Institute of Development Administration, a government university in Bangkok, announced his resignation. Arnond Sakworawich said he was quitting for “academic freedom” after coming under pressure from administrators not to publish the results of a survey on “Borrowed Pricey Wristwatches”.

The fiasco is untimely. It comes just as Mr Prayuth has begun hinting that he plans to remain in politics after elections that are supposed to return Thailand to democracy. Even though existing parties are not allowed to do any campaigning or organising, several new, pro-junta parties are being allowed to form. The junta, which has been in power for four years, also recently delayed the promised election for the fourth time. It had been scheduled for November, but is now postponed until an undetermined point next year.

A poll actually permitted to enter the public domain, conducted by Suan Dusit Rajabhat University between January 24th and 27th, found that almost half of respondents opposed such a delay because of fears that it will harm both the economy and Thailand’s image abroad. The otherwise beleaguered opposition seems keen to press its momentary advantage. Politicians are queuing up to demand Mr Prawit’s resignation. But if he does step down, the generals must worry, it may embolden critics to call time on the entire junta.

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