The Mathematics of Military Rule
By J. Sri Raman
Tuesday 18 September 2007
Source: t r u t h o u t
What does a crusader for "democracy" do in countries where the armies are his closest allies? He does what President George W. Bush is doing right now in Pakistan and Bangladesh. He goes all out for a spurious, army-backed substitute for the ideal, by which he swears, with such breathtakingly false fervor.
His method had until the other day been known by its mass nickname of "minus two." Many in each of the South Asian nations see now a slow, if unsure, transformation of the method into a "minus one" tactic. Evident to everyone, however, is the fact that a pair of politically ambitious generals provide the plus factor in the US president's formula for the two Islamic countries in turmoil.
The "minus two" method has been in operation for eight eventful years in Pakistan. Leaders of the country's two major political parties, former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, have been forced out and kept out of Pakistan since General Pervez Musharraf's military coup in 1999. "Minus two," however, became a political mantra and a popular usage only in Bangladesh early this year. There, it refers to the relentless efforts of the army and the "caretaker" regime backed by it to keep out of the political process (yes, you guessed it) leaders of the two largest parties and former prime ministers, Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Begum Khaleda Zia.
Neither Bush, nor anyone in his administration, has openly marketed the "minus two" method. But Washington's support for it has been clear. As noted in these columns before, others like William B. Milam, former US ambassador to Bangladesh and Pakistan, have argued the case for this strange method of serving the cause of democracy.
In Bangladesh, the method was sought to be implemented first by banishing the troublesome two. The army tried to close the door behind Hasina after she left to visit her daughter in the US some months ago, and even barred her from getting into a return flight from London despite a valid boarding pass. They tried to talk Khaleda, too, into accepting a negotiated asylum in Saudi Arabia (another close ally of the crusader for "democracy," with the license to deviate from all known norms of such a political system).
The banishment efforts, however, boomeranged. The ham-handedness in Heathrow horrified the international public, and Hasina made a triumphant return home, though the generals prevented a popular reception for her. Emulating the example of her successful resistance, Khaleda was quick to reject an exile deal of undisclosed details. Washington's responses to all this made a wondrous study in wishy-washy diplomacy.
It permitted itself mild expressions of disapproval, but allowed the army-backed regime to try out its awkward exile tactics. Milam revealed more anxiety about the prospect of the Begums coming together than in niceties of democratic norms. And the Bush administration has not even cared to appear gallant since then to the two leaders who would not go away and have now been locked away.
The exile operations were far easier in Pakistan. Soon after Musharraf's military coup in 1999, Benazir was forced into what she spiritedly calls "self-exile" and Nawaz packed off with "forty suitcases" (Benazir's words again) to, where else, Saudi Arabia.
Nawaz Sharif attempted a triumphant return on September 10, in a tense, hours-long drama watched by millions on television. He, obviously, calculated that he could play a Hasina-like card after a court verdict allowing his return, but Musharraf had the ace up his sleeve - military power. In full view of the international public, Nawaz was dispatched back to Jeddah with far less dignity, according to many, than was a former prime minister's due.
Through all this, again, Washington's response was one of a polite and patient counselor and not of a provoked, pro-democracy crusader. The one and only time the Bush administration acted with some annoyance, perhaps, was when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly telephoned Musharraf and warned him against imposing an "emergency rule."
Not only did the sole superpower of the world not do anything to stop the deportation of Nawaz Sharif. It was actually supportive of Musharraf's high-handedness, according to many in the know. No one, especially in Islamabad, believes that Pakistan's besieged president would have acted in this instance without consultations with, and the connivance of, the Bush administration. And it is an open secret that Benazir, and not Nawaz, is the preferred choice of the US president for the role of Musharraf's domestic ally, a coalition partner, lending him the democratic legitimacy of her own large constituency.
This is where the "minus two" method may undergo transformation into a "minus one tactic." We will know whether this is working when Benazir makes her return bid on October 18. Few doubt that the fate of her trip will be different from Nawaz Sharif's without a double deal with Musharraf and Bush, despite her strenuous denial of such moves.
Meanwhile, there is some speculation in Bangladesh that the military may be contemplating a "minus one" scenario here as well. Now that Nobel-winning economist Mohammed Yunus has refused the role of a proxy of Bush and the barrack power, some observers think, the army under Ahmad U Moeen may prefer to make do with Khaleda Zia, considered the lesser evil. They draw their inference from such indications as the better facilities provided to her in detention just some yards away from the other incarcerated Begum and the lesser charges of corruption against Khaleda and her sons than against Hasina, facing a murder-associated allegation.
The speculation must be qualified by the fact that the military rulers are also simultaneously trying to break the parties of both leaders - Khaleda's Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and Hasina's Awami League (AL). More significant than all this, however, is the point made by perceptive analysts about the party that the army and its regime is not targeting.
It is the far-right, fundamentalist Jaamat-e-Islami that has got off most lightly in the caretaker regime's much-hyped drive against corruption and for political reforms. Equally notably, Musharraf and his Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam, PMLQ) also count the fundamentalist Muttehadi Qaumi Movement (MQM) as their staunchest allies, despite the general's Bush-given badge of liberalism.
Pakistan's emasculated Election Commission has manipulated the rules in Musharraf's favor to help him contest the polls soon. Washington and other friends of Musharraf may be expected to hail the announcement as a harbinger of democracy, without demanding any steps to prevent the army from continuing as the power behind the throne in Pakistan.
As for Bangladesh, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs John A. Gastright is visiting Dhaka on September 18-19, obviously with the purpose of carrying Bush's "democracy project" further in the country. What can we expect from the visit? Suggestive, perhaps, is the fact that Gastright visited Bangladesh last in December 2006. The country went under army-backed rule in January 2007.
What the pro-democracy crusader seems to be forgetting in both cases is the factor of the people. It was popular outrage at the unceremonious sacking of Chief Justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court Iftikar Chaudhary that created the first major political problem for Musharraf. It is the revolt of students and some of the poorest sections of society that pose a menacing challenge to the military in Bangladesh as well. In both countries, the people seem to be on the move.
It is not by a fortuitous chance that this factor has been kept out of the crusader's strategy. Whether "minus two" or "minus one," the deceptive mantra envisages a "democracy" minus the people.
A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.