Saturday, July 19, 2008

Cracks in the Bangla Army

Cracks in the Bangla Army
Source: SIFY News
July 18, 2008

Barely five months away from the Parliamentary elections promised by the army-backed Caretaker Government of Bangladesh, the country seems to be reeling from one political crisis to another.

The general perception in the country is the Caretaker Government is no longer army-backed, but is army controlled. With recent problems within the army, and the political scenario bleak, a stable social and political situation in Bangladesh appears a distant hope.

The Caretaker Government has lost its meaning. According to the Constitution, the Caretaker Government was to have held elections within 90 days. But because of the prevailing situation at that time, the army intervened and Emergency Rule (ER) was declared on January 11, 2007. Thus pre-empting a BNP-sponsored coup in the armed force.

The People had welcomed the army’s action and its Chief General Moeen U. Ahmed. But that is no longer the case.

The army removed corrupt political leaders, but replaced them with new corrupt rulers. According to Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), corruption has not gone down. The opportunity to make money was hard to resist. The army is showing cracks, and the people do not want it to rule any more. The Forces have betrayed the people’s trust.

What Dhaka needs to learn
Re-engineering Bangladesh politics is the brain child of the army top brass, especially General Moeen. When Moeen unveiled his political theory of “Democracy with Bangladeshi characteristics”, he also deliberately let slip the army’s ambitions. It would be involved in the running of the country one way or the other.

One proposal pending government approval is the formation of a National Security Council (NSC) dominated by the armed forces with wide powers. Another, not mentioned publicly, is sharing of power between the President, the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the House, with the army Chief as the President. Other permutations and combinations are also being discussed in the army headquarters in Dhaka.

To consolidate its position in the governance of the country no matter which political party or coalition comes to power, the 1972 Constitution will require some radical changes, not simple amendments. What General Moeen is proposing could actually lead to permanent instability in the country. He is testing out pages from experiments by Pakistan’s military rulers, who periodically had support from the politicians. For example, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto also contemplated sharing power with the army, but Gen. Zia-ul-Haq hanged him.

Being a Bangladeshi, Moeen U.Ahmed should understand that there is a huge difference between the civil societies of Pakistan and Bangladesh, particularly in the political sphere. Pakistan is still largely a feudal society with power concentrated in the hands of landlords, industrialists and the armed forces. In Bangladesh, power comes from the vibrant politics of student unions, trade unions and grass-roots political workers. At the moment, the political heat may not be as high as that of the 1952 language movement or the 1971 liberation war, but it would be unwise for the army leaders to miscalculate the people’s mood.

Also, there are democratic elements within the defence forces, and it is that context that some recent events need to be understood. Why was Lt. General Masududdin Choudhury (better known as Masud) (and some other officers) suddenly retired in May? Masud backed Moeen in squashing the BNP sponsored coup in the first week of January, last year. They worked together to arrest corrupt politicians and strengthen the grip of the armed forces on the Caretaker Government. So why the fall out?

Bangladesh: A book that burns
According to reliable information circulating in Dhaka, Masud’s ouster was the result of a power struggle between him and Moeen. Masud is known to be articulate, emphatic, and hard headed. Moeen is calculative, soft spoken, and can be charming. Some of their course mates in Bangladesh Staff College say Moeen was noted as an officer with little leadership qualities, while Masud was given to prominence.

But Masud has two drawbacks. First, he was recruited in the old Jatiyo Rakhi Bahini (JRB) of Sk. Mujib, a paramilitary force. When the JRB was disbanded, he was absorbed in the regular army.

Then, he is related to Maj. (Retd) Sayed Iskander, brother of BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia. Iskander is still said to be influential among some senior army officers. Although most of the Zia family is facing trial over corruption cases, Iskander, known to be as corrupt as the rest of the family, is yet to be charged. Did Masud help him? On the other hand, Masud has been very hard on Begum Khaleda’s eldest son, Tareq Reheman Zia, known to be the most corrupt and devious person during the BNP regime from 2001-2006.

Bangladesh: The Caretaker Strikes
Masud’s ouster appears to be a mixture of issues. His services have been placed at the foreign ministry, to be posted abroad as an Ambassador. Australia has reportedly declined his accreditation on the grounds of his corruption. Is Masud being squeezed by Moeen into no man’s land?

Masud could not be cashiered or court martialled, perhaps, because he is privy to too many secrets. Moeen may have made a deal with him on an, “either/or” basis. Having been the GOC of 9 Inf. Division which covers Dhaka, Masud must have had his own following in the army. He also had his own links in the Directorate General of Field Intelligence, the main intelligence arm of the armed forces built on the lines of Pakistan’s ISI.

Then, Brig .General Bari of the DGFI has also been transferred to the Army Headquarters. Bari is a veteran of the DGFI, is close to the ISI, and was directly involved till his transfer in dividing the political parties. His abrupt transfer is being linked to Masud’s removal.

More importantly, it is reported that around 37 army officers in Dhaka have been taken into custody, and are to be court martialled on charges of planning a coup. Unconfirmed reports say some officers were killed in a gun fight resisting arrest.

While Dhaka is known for its rumours, there is no denying the escalating friction between factions of the military.

Secularism is not about appeasing terrorists
For instance, the sections in the armed forces who participate in the UN Peace Keeping Missions, are against the armed forces getting involved in politics. They earn a lot of money from these assignments and do not want to jeopardize this opportunity. The UN Secretary General had warned the Bangladesh armed forces in a letter early last year that if they established army rule in the country, they would be debarred from UN assignments. These assignments not only benefit officers and other ranks, but also go a long way is supplementing the budget of the armed forces.

Unfortunately, the Bangladesh armed forces is not a homogeneous lot of professionals. They have been politicized since Zia-ur-Rehman took over in 1977 as the army chief and then the President of the country. There are some small groups of professionals.

Some 20 per cent reportedly support the Awami League. But a large number are supporters of the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), which has cadres from the lower ranks to some officers who are inclined towards Islamic radicalism and Pakistan. These are mostly elements in the forces who had opposed liberation from Pakistan in 1971.

Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed and his colleagues have another serious problem, that of their future security. They have taken on too many political heavyweights, slamming them with corruption charges. The charges are not fictitious. But how many of them can be put behind bars for a long time and debarred from politics?

In many of the cases the charges have been half way houses. If some of them return to power, and many would, they would certainly make the lives of these army officers miserable. It would be so especially in the case of the Khaleda Zia family and her sons Tareq and Arafat, unless they are put away permanently. Begun Khaleda has already said that she will see to these people when she comes back to power.

Moeen and his army colleagues appear to have dug themselves in a hole, and are digging in deeper. It may be advisable for them to ensure that the culprits who have seriously damaged the country are legally ostracized from the country’s socio-political lattice. And then leave politics to the people.

“Democracy with Bangladeshi characteristics” is a recipe for disaster.

But General Moeen U. Ahmed obviously believes otherwise.
Bhaskar Roy, who retired recently as a senior government official with decades of national and international experience, is an expert on international relations and Indian strategic interests. In this exclusive column for, he holds forth on what Pyongyang will do once the nuclear issue is resolved

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