The army chief’s comments

Editorial, NewAge, October 18, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The army chief, General Moeen U Ahmed, has made several important statements while talking to reporters at the Bangladesh High Commission in London on Tuesday. The army chief said that while he was aware of the widespread rumours that he wants to become the president of our republic, those rumours have no basis in reality as he does not have any such ambition whatsoever. Although the army chief may have attempted to sound selfless and magnanimous in declaring that he did not want to become the president, and while it may even be true that General Moeen does not have such a political ambition, the very fact that these rumours exist only shows the weaknesses that our two important institutions, the political parties and the national army, suffer from: the fragility of our political process and perceived political ambition of the army. Had there been a functioning democracy with a sound political culture, there would and could not have been any rumour to the effect that the chief of the army has ambitions to become the head of state in the first place.

However, the army chief also suggested on Tuesday that had outright martial law been declared on January 11, which was an option open to him, the people would have welcomed it. We cannot help but disagree with him. While it is true that the people were absolutely fed up with the crude power struggle of the political parties that have ruled our country in the last two decades, this does not mean that they were hoping for the armed forces to take their place. What the people have always wanted and have fought for is a real democracy that allows them greater rights and freedoms and that makes the government more transparent and accountable to the people. Had martial law ever been a welcome alternative, the people of this land would not have repeatedly fought, over the last fifty years, against every extra-constitutional form of government to have ruled this country – whether military or otherwise – resulting in their ultimate ouster. There may be some within our society who always advocate for and support extra-constitutional governments, but such individuals in no way represent the people at large.

The army chief also listed the successes of this government, speaking of the anti-corruption drive, the changed situation at the Chittagong Port, the steps to separate the judiciary from the executive etc. While this government has had some successes to boast about, it has even bigger failures that the army chief chose not to mention. The primary responsibility of a ‘caretaker government’ is to help the Election Commission to conduct parliamentary elections within three months of its formation. But the current regime has been in place for over nine months now and not only have parliamentary elections not been held, a correct voters’ roll is not even close to being prepared. Also, the tenure of the current government has seen a considerable slow-down for our economy, with investment levels – local and foreign – falling significantly. Inflation, on the other hand, has risen to record levels leading to justified fears of stagflation of the economy. Hence, the successes of this government in the different sectors are more than cancelled out by its fundamental political and economic failures.

While talking to the reporters, the army chief also said that some incidents of obstruction and harassment of journalists had taken place in Bangladesh since the proclamation of emergency on January 11, making them seem like minor isolated incidents. We, again, disagree with the claim made by General Moeen, as the experience of the media suggests a very different picture. There have been repeated advisory and at times intimidating phone calls and messages sent to the newspapers and television channels by this government in an effort to censor and control the media. The electronic media houses in particular have even received an ‘unofficial nine-point directive’ from the government telling them what they can and cannot broadcast. They have even received a list of people who the channels should invite as guests at their talk shows. This proves that the censoring of the media is a policy decision of this government, and the incidents of obstruction and harassment are part of that policy, not mere isolated incidents.

All said and done, we appreciate the army chief’s latest announcement that he has no political ambition and hope that he will not develop any in the days to come for the sake of both the credibility of the army and the future of our democracy.

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