Thursday, March 12, 2009

Languishing between two dictators?


On 25th February, the chief of the paramilitary organization, Major General Shakil Ahmed sensed that the 54th battalion was going to mutiny. Half an hour before the actual shooting began, he spoke with the newly-elected prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina; she assured him that the army was on its way. General Shakil then told his officers, waiting in the Durbar Hall, that the 46th brigade was coming. They never came.

These facts have been mined from MP3 files released on; vivid recordings of what transpired between the prime minister and the angry and bereaved army officers at an enormous hall known as the Senakunja in the cantonment.

"If the army chief had sent just one tank, or one platoon of commandos, they would have run like ants!" spoke Colonel Zaman in a voice choking with repressed tears. In fact, this was precisely what they did when the tanks turned up on Satmasjid Road, a couple of hundred yards from the scene – but the tanks arrived after 32 hours.

After General Shakil spoke with the prime minister, the army chief, the director general of the Rapid Action Battalion...they waited, in vain. However, the prime minister insisted that the army had been immediately deployed. One soldier died and another even received a bullet wound to his head, she said. "If it takes a long time to send the army, then tell the air force to send a helicopter so they'll be scared and won't do anything further," she recalled this instruction. She did deploy troops in the Dhanmandi area (some were right outside the author's apartment building), but – crucially – after the killings and even then far from Pilkhana, as the mutineers demanded.

The army objected fiercely as to why a military affair had been turned into a civilian one.
The prime minister maintained that she had worked with the army, and if it hadn't been made a civilian affair then many more people might have been killed. This claim sits oddly with the fact that the mere sight of the tanks sent the rebels – indeed the entire force inside headquarters – running for dear life.

And how did 7,000 to 9,000 personnel with their families manage to leave Pilkhana, an enclosed military area in the heart of the city (in fact, Pilkhana comes from the Persian words 'fil' and 'khana', the place for elephants, for during Mughal rule the place was used as a headquarters for the military). And why was there an opportune power failure at the time, cloaking the sprawling acres in darkness?

Colonel Zaman spoke at length on the politicization of the military. Military appointments, as well as bureaucratic and judicial appointments, have been made on political considerations by the two parties run by the two dynasties – Sheikh Hasina's Awami League (AL), inherited from her father, and Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), inherited from her husband (readers will recall how the Pakistan People's Party was 'willed' to her husband by Benazir Bhutto).

In 1996, when the BNP tried to rig an election, senior bureaucrats took to the streets demanding the ruling party to step down. They were loyal supporters of the Awami League. This was a tocsin: the partition of the state had begun. After the government was forced to step down, it was Buggins's turn: the Awami league won.

Walter Mebane of the University of Michigan has crunched the elector figures and concluded that the election was neither free nor fair. According to The Economist: "The 1991 election showed no strange results. For the 1996 election some 2% of results were problematic. And fully 9% of the results in 2001 failed the test. The 2001 election was fiercely contested. Yet monitors from the Carter Centre and the European Union found the election to be acceptably, if not entirely, free and fair. [1]" The west has an agenda, after all: to spread democracy at all costs.
Having won, the Awami League rewarded the rebellious bureaucrats with plum ministerial positions.

Then came Buggins's turn again, and the BNP 'won' the election of 2001. One of its first actions was to file sedition cases against the political bureaucrats (naturally, these have been withdrawn by the currently ruling Awami League). Another was to sack around seventeen Supreme Court judges who had been appointed as additional judges by the Awami League – the BNP naturally suspected them of being in league with the League (the case against them has also been withdrawn by the state under the Awami League).

Every public university campus, and even many public high schools, had become politicized quite some time ago: in fact, it is claimed, totally falsely, that student politicians had overthrown military rule and ushered in democracy. The role of western donor governments after the end of communism in bringing democracy to their client states has been discussed by the author elsewhere [2]. They – not the students – were the 'heroes' who ushered in democracy after propping up dictatorship for years.

The next election was scheduled to be held on 22nd January, 2007. Every institution had been geared to secure a victory for the BNP. The opposition refused to participate, and people began to die on the streets in skirmishes. Western donors, fearful of another failed Muslim state after Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, asked the army to take over. Now, the army chief, General Moeen U. Ahmed, had himself been a BNP placeman: it is alleged that he was promoted chief over the heads of senior officers for his loyalty.

Therefore, the scene was all set for a conflict between the army and the Awami League – but for the timely intervention of the United Nations. "The UN also warned the army against partisan intervention in politics, adding that this might jeopardize its lucrative role in UN peacekeeping operations. This threat helped sever an alliance between the army and the BNP [3]". The same report adds significantly: "The BNP's leader, the previous prime minister, Khaleda Zia, is reported to have been taken aback by the state of emergency and disappointed in the generals." Thus, the UN preempted a situation where it would have had to send peacekeeping forces to, instead of recruiting any from, Bangladesh.

There followed two years of peace, unprecedented in the sixteen prior to the army takeover on 11th January, 2007. But the western donors insisted on democracy – it was George Bush's 'religion'. To quote Charles Taylor, who seems to have felt this intimately as well: "Post-Axial religions often suffer from a profound bad faith, even hypocrisy. But in this, they are not alone. They have been followed by some of the militant secular ideologies in this, as well as that hybrid phenomenon of our day, confessionally-defined nationalisms (BJP's Hindutva, George W. Bush's nation bringing liberty to the world, following God's will for humanity). [4]" Whether democracy will again be suspended, thus preempting again something like civil war, will be decided, ironically, not by any section, let alone the whole, of the people of Bangladesh, but by a certain man in Washington, D.C.

Thus, fifty days into Sheikh Hasina's democratic reign (no doubt as spurious in its democratic credentials as the others), the revolting events at Pilkhana occurred. It seems transparently evident that politicians and certain military personnel were the architects of the episode. Was the motive revenge? Or was it a deterrent strike by the politicians-cum-military against any future takeover of the government by the armed forces?

The powers unleashed when military loyalty becomes split has been observed at least as far back as the dual generalships of Marius and Sulla, Caesar and Pompey, Octavian and Antony. But that tragedy had a happy denouement in the culmination in the Empire, with military and government at one, as one. Muslim history furnishes us with similarly happy endings. But there seems none of that beatific marriage of military and majesty in prospect for the people of Bangladesh.

As an aside, it should be observed that technological progress rendered transparent a cloak of conspiracy: selected sections of dialogue between the army and the prime minister, when she was grilled for three hours, were posted by some noble soul on Facebook [5].

When, on the night of the 26th February, Mrs. Moeen, the army chief's wife, came to Mirpur Cantonment to visit the female victims, she got an icy reception. Usually, the docile and respectful wives of the officers would rise, greet her and go towards her – not on this occasion. She left the premises silently.

What was it that prevented General Moeen U. Ahmed from sending tanks to the rescue of his officers posthaste? After the incident, the American ambassador, James Moriarty, has again and again lauded him for supporting the recently democratically elected government of Sheikh Hasina.

For these were the General's alternatives, his choices: (a) either to back the civilian government of Sheikh Hasina and abandon the officers to their fate or (b) to bypass the civilian government (that is, take over state power) and help his officers. He chose the former because he knew that the international community, especially America, would not tolerate such a move – remember those coveted peacekeeping operations?

Over the last sixteen years of two-party politics, every institution has been politicized: the bureaucracy was the first to go to the dogs, then the judiciary and the army. The most egregious example of the latter was when Sheikh Hasina took General Mustafiz out – yes, out – of retirement (he was on LPR – leave preparatory to retirement) and made him army chief again for his loyalty to the dynasty (he was, in fact, related to Hasina, and the whole family are rabid supporters of the League, Mustafiz's brother being well-known to the author). Apparently, the General was only 'slightly retired', as in 'slightly dead' or 'slightly pregnant'. The other leader – Khaleda Zia of the BNP – did exactly the same in office, as we saw.

So, when democracy was restored after a two-year military interregnum spearheaded by General Moeen and backed by the western donor governments, the army was more or less evenly divided between those loyal to Hasina and those loyal to Khaleda.

Now, Hasina has a greater following: she is regarded as a continuation of her father, Sheikh Mujib, the demagogue who inadvertently created Bangladesh. That is why the media have been obsequiously worshipful of her 'successful' handling of the crisis. Her followers regard her incarceration under military rule as an unpardonable act of lese-majeste. They were baying for blood.

And, it seems, they got it.

But the unholy alliance between the army and the two politicians has been forged under the watchful eyes of the western donors. They saw it happening: true, they tried to get rid of the two 'begums' (banshees, rather) in a minus-two formula (exile or jail), but such was the tenacious loyalty of the followers (especially of Hasina's), that it proved impossible. Where, prior to 1991, we had one dictator, now we were destined to be blessed with two. Instead of drawing the ineluctable conclusion, as the late Samuel Huntington would have done, that democracy here is a no-go, the west insists on elections.

In the process, they have ruined every institution that stands between civilisation and barbarism.

[1] The Economist, February 24 2007, p 82
[3] The Economist, January 29th 2007, p 39
[4] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press), p 689

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