Monday, July 30, 2007

Army calling the shots in Bangladesh

(Read this article from Asian Tribune published on July 24, 2007)

By Atul – Rama - Syndicate Features

The men in uniform when in power either directly or through a proxy generally do not like to retreat to their barracks in a haste; especially when they begin with the promise of going back to their garrisons at the earliest opportunity. Bangladesh, quite familiar with military dictatorships, may well be on way to having another long stint of military rule, this time by proxy though.

Sure, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) of the country has announced a ‘roadmap’ for the polls according to which the general elections will be held by the end of 2008. The polls were earlier put off because a lot of spadework for that exercise like revising the voters’ list was not carried out properly and has come under attack from the Awami League led alliance. It may not be difficult to discover a few months from now that the task will require more time than was anticipated by the Election Commission (EC).

Doubts about the polls have been reinforced with the arrest of the Awami League chief, Sheikh Hasina, following a two-hour pre-dawn raid on her residence on July 16. The same day a court asked her rival, Begum Khaleda Zia, to appear before it on August 26 to answer charges of tax evasion. Khaleda’s son Tariq Rehman, apparently heir to her (and her late husband’s) political legacy, is already in jail and his mother joining him soon cannot be ruled out more so after Sheikh Hasina’s arrest. The present rulers in Dhaka can then claim that they have treated the two principal political figures of the country equally.

The military-backed government may want to show that it is not biased in favour of any of the two Begums when earlier this summer it had tried, unsuccessfully, to keep first Khaleda Zia and then Sheikh Hasina out of the country. A ‘deal’ was almost struck with Khaleda Zia for an extended exile in Saudi Arabia, a la Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif. But she backed off at the last minute though some reports said that Riyadh was not too keen to host the Begum. And Sheikh Hasina was prevented on request from the Bangladesh government from boarding a British Airways plane at London for her return journey to Dhaka after she had visited her daughter in the US. A loud outcry came to her rescue and she was later allowed to return home.

The authorities still managed to achieve what they had in mind. Restrictions were placed on her movements and the visitors who wanted to call on her. Ditto for Khaleda Zia. This despite the fact that the state of emergency in Bangladesh had already curtailed political activity and not even ‘indoor politics’ is allowed.

It is rare for incarcerated politicians to be released from prison pretty soon when the purpose in sending them behind bars is to keep them out of politics. The intention of the military-backed interim government of Fakhruddin Ahmed, expressed through words and gestures in the last six months, has been to keep the ‘Battling Begums’ of Bangladesh out of politics on the ground that their endless quarrels had brought the nation to a virtual halt.

It is not without significance that lately reports have been circulating that a ‘revolt’ against the leadership has been brewing in both the Awami League and the BNP. The BNP rebels were actually planning a parallel meeting of their national council meeting. The ‘revolt’ was said to have drawn its support from the disenchantment among public with the politics of confrontation and hate that the two Begums have been playing for long.

The two Begums have been accused of gross misrule during the 1991-2006 periods, when they had shared power alternatively. It was a period marked by widespread corruption, frequent nation-wide strikes and violence. And in the case of the Bangladesh National Party rule the country also took a sharp turn towards religious extremism even as it battled with an almost daily shutdowns called by the Awami League.

The misrule and the chaos brought by Hasina and Khaleda were bound to worry the ordinary people. This was the reason why from the proletariat to the elite people from all walks of life were actually quite relieved when the interim government had taken over in January even when everyone knew that the real power would rest with the military. The military-backed government, if nothing else, was lesser of the two evils.

But the honeymoon appears to be ending sooner than was expected in seven months back. A feeling is growing that the military-backed government has been trampling some of the basic civil rights while the generals have launched a drive to vilify the entire class of politicians that will make the task of putting democracy back on rails difficult. The military’s crusade against ‘corruption’ would have been more universally welcomed had it also tried to clean up in-house corruption.

The gag on politics rules out anyone raising voice against the military. It is said sometimes that the generals in Bangladesh will not want to perpetuate their rule as it might deprive Bangladesh the handsome earnings from its contribution to the UN peacekeeping troops. But that does not seem like a major hindrance when one of the messages being sent out by the generals is that Bangladesh politics is going to see some ‘fundamental changes’ and those politicians who are not ready for it will have to look for some other avocation.

The army chief, Lt Gen Moin U Ahmed, had famously said some weeks ago that Bangladesh has to ‘build its own brand of democracy.’ This could have passed as a harmless remark from a military man not familiar with politics had it not come along with his equally famous quote that he knew ‘more about democracy than the politicians.’ And had the remark not coincided with the efforts to break AL and BNP to create a loyal party like Gen Musharraf did in Pakistan shortly after he dethroned Nawaz Sharif government. And one of the proposals for revamping the system that have been tossed up envisages creation of National Security Council, a concept Musharraf had borrowed from Turkey and implemented in Pakistan. Also like Musharraf’s army, Moin’s army is also into a wide range of business interests that range from real estate to banking services. The Army owned Bank is in fact a big player with branches all across the country.

It cannot be denied that the ‘Battling Begums’ harmed their country with their uncompromising hostility towards each other. But shutting them out completely may mean that the military may actually be looking for pliable leaders who would ensure that the real power rests with the men in uniform. In Pakistan the military has a permanent vice-like grip over the country and no civilian government can survive or do anything without the military’s approval. Bangladesh has had its spells of direct military rule in the 1970s and 1980s but after that the politicians had recovered their grip over power.

Is Bangladesh going to the days of military rule? The military in Bangladesh is in favour of setting up an all-powerful national security council. It will be super body dominated by the military and intelligence elements that will veto the decisions taken by any elected civilian government. In that sense the former East Pakistan (Bangladesh) will not be very different from Pakistan.

- Syndicate Features -

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