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Army Entrenches Itself in Bangladesh

Despite its protestations, the army is expanding its control in Bangladesh. The administration, which owes its existence to the defence forces, is emasculating the political parties and the hope is that the "two begums", Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, will be thrown out of their respective parties or even that a "national unity" government will be formed.

Letter from South Asia

Army Entrenches Itselfin Bangladesh

Despite its protestations, the army is expanding its control inBangladesh. The administration, which owes its existence to thedefence forces, is emasculating the political parties and the hope isthat the “two begums”, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, will bethrown out of their respective parties or even that a “national unity”

government will be formed.


angladesh’s army chief, general Moeen U Ahmed, is to make a keenly anticipated visit to India in August. On July 10, he said: “Let me reassure you that (the) army is not ruling the country”. The 54-old infantry commander then went on to admonish the questioner that “some people smell a rat in everything….” (NewAge, Bangladesh, July 11).

Despite Moeen Ahmed’s protestations, it is difficult to accept his modesty. The general made those remarks at the workshop “Curbing Corruption in South Asia” organised by the Global Organisation of Parliamentarians against Corruption. He was the star of the show, outlining a sevenpoint agenda to fight corruption, including the introduction of a Right to Information Act and review of the Official Secrets Act.

The army has become emboldened after six months and pronouncements and statements are not isolated incidents. The army, via its hand-picked bureaucrats, is involved in such matters as creating a new system of running elections. Since declaring a state of emergency on January 11 this year, a budget has been announced, negotiations have been conducted with foreign investors and global aid agencies, officials have been leading a drive to control spiralling prices of basic essentials and trying to award new contracts to build power plants. Buildings flouting zoning laws are being pulled down in the capital and ambitious plans have been announced for new roads and a rapid public transit system.

Meanwhile, senior politicians are behind bars or on the run. Most political parties are reeling under the pincers of a ban on activities and the arrest and sentencing of well known leaders. Exministers are being found guilty of massive corruption. Some have been handed 13 years of rigorous imprisonment. More will follow. The old guard in the two main parties, the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), is manoeuvring against their two leaders, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, respectively. The “minustwo ladies” campaign is in full swing as their once loyal companions try to “reform” the parties. Ostensibly meant to encourage internal party democracy, these proposals are mainly intended to trim the power of the two begums, as the two leaders are referred to in Bangladesh.

Last week, Sheikh Hasina was charged with corruption and incitement to murder. On that basis, she was denied permission to leave the country again to visit her daughter in the US. Then, on July 16, early in the morning, she was picked up by police and sent to prison. Not leaving the country to stand by her sons (both languishing in jail), Khaleda Zia may well be the next. She will have to submit her wealth statements to the authorities and is vulnerable to further disclosures by her former ministers. The message is clear: no one is beyond the reach of the military.

The name and reputation of the political parties continue to be steadily tarnished through revelations under interrogation, which are deliberately leaked to the media. The public is not clamouring for the army to withdraw to the barracks. The army may be feared but it is not at present loathed by voters. They prefer to wait and see and seem in no hurry for the return of “façade democracy”. The administration promises to set up a fresh and transparent electoral process to prevent fraud at the next elections, supposedly due end of 2008.

It is remarkable how commentators and politicians have fallen in line with the proposed timetable for elections. Is there a precedent for such an orderly withdrawal? Since liberation in 1971, Bangladesh has been ruled by the military for half its existence, from 1975 to 1990. At no time did the army go quietly. Ershad only agreed to step aside after officers refused to continue shooting protestors; Zia died in a hail of bullets in 1981.

How does the present situation compare with the past? The military is at pains to point out that they are backing a civil administration and have therefore not “taken over”. It can also highlight its behaviour in 2002 when it was called in to restore law and order. There are important differences, however. Operation Clean Heart in 2002 was conducted at the behest of a recently elected democratic government and had limited aims. Today, the civilian-led administration is unelected. It cannot claim popular support and is widely perceived as being kept in place by the army. The army is also taking some measures which may carry a considerable risk in the future. Will indemnity bills or ordinances be sufficient to hold back vengeful politicians? Can one imagine a situation where a new BNP-Islamic alliance wins at the polls, say in December 2008, and decides to free incarcerated leaders or welcome back exiled ones? The situation would be explosive with unpredictable consequences. It is therefore pretty clear that those directing events today do not expect such an outcome.

Exit Strategy

The present behaviour of senior politicians, who are not in jail, suggests they are willing to ditch the political dynasties in order to get into office. However, it is hard to imagine what the BNP would be without the Zia family. The Awami League can trace its history beyond Hasina and her father, Sheikh Mujib, but it too would be unconvincing without that family at its head. After all, no ideological philosophy glues these parties together. Indistinguishable in terms of economic management, they jockey for position on the issues of superficial nationalism, Islam and relations with India. So while it is possible one of these parties could in theory agree to operate under new guidelines, it is

Economic and Political Weekly July 21, 2007 difficult to see how they will be anything but a pale shadow of their former strength, without the leadership of the dynasties. There are no signs that decent incorruptible politicians would emerge, which begs the question: what is the current corruption drive trying to achieve? Do its proponents believe this will permanently break the cycle of political corruption and stagnation?

The best case for an army withdrawal would seem to be for a fresh new party to win at free and fair polls. So far, the signs are not promising. Nobel Laureate Mohammed Yunus singularly failed in his bid to launch a new political party. Westernbacked, he seemed to fit the bill of a clean candidate with a can-do attitude. The public were thoroughly unimpressed and retain more sophistication than they are credited for. A new attempt by second division politicians looks doomed to suffer the same fate. There is a pattern, of course, for new parties to emerge during military rule. The BNP was the creation of Zia in the 1970s. Ershad did the same in the 1980s with the Jatiyo Party. That looks a lot more difficult now. An alternative path may now be considered. This could be the formation of a “national unity” government. Unlike the current bureaucraticled administration, this unity government would be stuffed with politicians drawn from the main parties. This is possible since the existing parties are emasculated. The formation of a national unity government organised along those lines would remove any potential political challenge next year.

Whatever permutation eventually emerges, when Moeen Ahmed comes to India next month, he will be seen as the strongman with whom India has to deal.

What’s Up for Discussion?

South Block in Delhi will be keen to glean more, away from the spotlight in Dhaka. Foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon, during a visit to Dhaka, came away with the feeling that Delhi can do business with the current administration. However, there are issues that need to be expedited. Two investment propositions lie on the table. Since submitting an “expression of interest” in April 2004, the Tatas have been waiting for approval for a $3 billion project to utilise Bangladesh’s gas and coal reserves for a steel and fertiliser complex. The Mittals signed a memorandum of understanding earlier this year for a similar project. The Dhaka media has reported Indian displeasure at the delay in approval and suggest that assurances will be sought on speeding things up.

If anything could be described as the Achilles heel of regimes in Bangladesh, it would be gas and coal. In 2006, the previous regime cancelled an agreement with a small British company (Asia Energy, now called Global Coal Management), which had taken over Australia’s BHP-Billiton coal concessions in North Bengal. After the police overreacted by shooting protestors, the BNP took fright and arbitrarily cancelled the agreement to mine coal, intended mainly for export. For a decade, successive regimes have failed to decide on what they will do with the gas and coal. Foreign energy multinationals have insisted on exporting the gas to India and won backing from the aid agencies. However, in 2004, senior figures in the BNP told western diplomats that “within seven days of signing an agreement to export gas, we would be thrown out of power…”, citing the experience in Bolivia where its president had to flee in the face of popular anger.

To the man in the street, these proposals may seem to be backdoor attempts to export the gas, which will be sold cheaply to produce products destined for export back to India. Whatever the merits of the argument, Bangladesh suffers from perennial power shortages and there is a public demand for electricity production utilising increasingly valuable gas and coal. One of the main voter frustrations with the BNP regime was its failure to add to the country’s electricity generating capacity. Negotiations with India’s BHEL to produce electricity for a domestic market, utilising gas, are therefore timely and to be welcomed. No one is likely to challenge the current incumbents in Dhaka if they were to sign any controversial agreements. That is, however, unlikely to be the case a few years down the line as political forces regroup and pounce on populist issues. Another project in limbo is the construction of a gas pipeline to transport Myanmar’s gas via Bangladesh to West Bengal (with entry of Bangladesh’s gas into the pipeline). There does not seem to be sufficient understanding in South Block about the political sensitivities in Bangladesh with regard to the country’s national resources.

Then we have the long-standing request for transhipment – the use of Bangladeshi road and rail infrastructure to carry goods between West Bengal and the seven sister states of north-eastern India. This has become woven into a debate on sovereignty. It would be unwise to put Moeen Ahmed into a corner; it would be better instead to give him some successes. The impending start of the Moitree Express, a train service between Dhaka and Kolkata, is a case in point. Dhaka would like four journeys a week while it is being offered only one. Confidence-building measures such as these would go a long way with Dhaka’s middle class.

There is likely to be less of a problem in meetings regarding the ULFA militants. Bilateral relations have been bedevilled with accusations and flat denials regarding the presence of ULFA militants in Bangladesh during the tenure of the BNP-Jamaat regime. In private at least, military minds on both sides should find common ground and agreement on future cooperation. It is not in the interests of the present regime in Bangladesh to be engaged in a regional game which links Kashmir to Assam.

A meeting of the old officers to commemorate the overwhelming contribution of the Indian army to the defeat of the East Pakistan army in 1971 should be a triumph, brimming with rich sentimental significance. It remains to be seen whether the communists in Writer’s Building in Kolkata wish to open a new chapter with Dhaka regarding economic cooperation. The spectre of further immigration usually clouds the dialogue. Emigration will continue as Bangladesh has never enacted a comparable land reform programme as in West Bengal. Much government (‘khas’) land has been expropriated by private landowners, which no regime feels strong enough to redistribute to the growing army of the landless. Only 3,00,000 of the million youths entering the job market annually are being “exported” mainly to west Asia. Many flock to Dhaka. Others are forced by necessity to try their luck in the vastness of India.

If one is interested in long-term stability, bilateral relations need to focus on economic upliftment, rather than talking about terrorism and Islamic politics. Concessions should be made in water sharing, vital to Bangladesh’s agricultural sector, which still employs two-thirds of the population. On the other hand, proposals for mutually beneficial Indian investment in tourism, telecom, internet, financial services and health are likely to receive favourable treatment. Finally, we need to maintain a medium-term perspective. Indian elections in 2009 may well lead to new faces and new approaches being in place in Delhi. Do not bet on Moeen Ahmed not being around in Dhaka to send the customary congratulations to the winners.



Economic and Political Weekly July 21, 2007

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