Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bangladesh: a case of non-intervention?

A very strange analysis indeed! So, we should be happy that we got back so-called democracy without US military's help! And a warning too!: our nascent democracy is still 'very fragile', and 'the potential for implosion or reversal ( to another 1/11 or similar formula) is a reality!

Read it here.

If you look for an empiric case study for why it might be better to not intervene in sovereign affairs of another country as a characteristic of an improved US Foreign Policy, one could do worse than consider the two examples of Pakistan and Bangladesh. While there are stark differences between the two, there are also similarities of note. Both are geographically close and both emerging from a period of military governance towards democracy. Both are primarily Muslim, and have crippling poverty issues. Pakistan has been fully engaged in US and Western diplomacy. Bangladesh has been monitored but has not had the same degree of focus. Pakistan is increasing radicalized, has been accused of state sponsored terrorism, is home to growing numbers of Pakistan Taliban, is a potentially volatile nuclear power, and is edging closer to economic and civil disobedience.

Pakistan is being influenced through US financing, diplomatic pressure and is undergoing regular strikes in its territories by US drone aircraft, that disappointingly seems to be an apparent policy continuance under the new Obama Administration. A recent US audit of how committed Pakistan is to combating terrorism, a condition of it continuing to receive financial aid, has resulted in the US deducted $55 million under its reimbursement programme for expenses incurred by Pakistan after auditors raised objections to a claim submitted by the country. US authorities deducted the amount while releasing only $101 million out of Pakistan’s claim of $156 million for expenses incurred on the campaign against terrorism till April 2008. Pakistan has seen the effect of engaged US diplomacy, and while desperate for funds, seems less than impressed by the results. Pakistan is still a country divided - military, intelligence, religious and tribal factions are all vying for supremacy. It is a case of where US influence has failed to deliver the desired effects.

Bangladesh, however, has just undergone free, non-violent elections. Regional Observer, Charles Tannock reported of the Bangladesh elections that “…the new electoral register was more robust than in many Western countries, with a photo ID picture alongside each elector. The violence that had been widespread in previous elections was entirely absent, with the security services’ professionalism in policing the elections - and the army’s willingness to return voluntarily to its barracks - playing a key role.” What may be surprising to many observers in the West is that the new Bangladesh Prime Minister is a woman, Sheikh Hasina, an historic feat that has still escaped the US. In addition, seventeen directly elected Bangladeshi female parliamentarians took up their seats on 25 January, and 45 more are set to join them soon, meaning 62 women out of 345 will sit in the unicameral (single legislative chamber) legislature. That is a higher percentage than many of the Western governments, and all this in a Muslim country.

It is worth while reading an extract of Tannock’s report to see how effectively the people of Bangladesh resisted the calls of the Islamic factions during this election process, unlike many other countries put in the same situation:

“To some extent, it is surprising that the Islamist parties did not do better, considering their success elsewhere in mobilizing the most marginalized and vulnerable in society. If the Awami League is unable to address systematic poverty and social inequality, Islamism may well yet succeed in rallying the impoverished to its banner. The Jamaat-e-Islami Party, indeed, told me that they had a 30-year agenda to introduce Sharia law into Bangladesh. The examples of Hamas and Hizbullah provide a salutary reminder of the challenges faced by the new government in Bangladesh. Although these groups are better known internationally for their militancy against Israel, they have established strong political support by providing organized social services such as schools and clinics for poor people. Hamas and Hizbullah have prospered because the governing authorities were either unable or unwilling to address grassroots poverty. In the case of Hamas, this displacement was due largely to the massive corruption of the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat, whose cronies pocketed billions of dollars intended to alleviate poverty and suffering in the Gaza Strip.

With its constitutional majority, the government should ensure this outcome by restoring the 1972 constitution, which established Bangladesh as a secular democratic state. Bangladesh is a country rich with human potential, but that potential can only be realized by making poor people’s needs - which Islamists around the world have previously made their own political territory - the new government’s top priority.“

None of this is to day that Bangladesh is out of the woods. It is still very fragile, and the potential for implosion or reversal is a reality. However, it has made massive strides in the right direction. It has ended a period of military totalitarian rule voluntarily, undertaken free and robust elections and moved towards transparent civil governance all without a US military boot in their sovereign borders. There may well be a moral here that encouragement and enablement are more effective than military threat or financial leverage. We need to keep an eye on the Bangladesh experiment but at the moment, in these embryonic days, it appears to be moving in the right direction in stark contrast to the lack of progress in Pakistan.

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