The messiah syndrome

NewAge, July 1, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Our current army chief is not the first general to have unsuccessfully tried to bring about a qualitative change in a nation’s politics by giving it, in characteristic military style, short-term shock therapy. But strengthening democracy requires more than a messiah, it requires collective, long-term efforts to establish the rule of law, to ensure individual freedom and to allow democratic institutions to grow and flourish, writes Shameran Abed  

IT IS surprising that a major story on Bangladesh in the latest issue of Time magazine [June 30-July 7], which is based on an exclusive interview with the army chief, General Moeen U Ahmed, has gone almost unnoticed. Could it be that those who have seen and read the story prefer not to discuss or highlight it, given its unflattering portrayal of the general and his attempts at being the nation’s redeemer? Or are we ashamed at our collective folly at having initially been hopeful about the general and his band of deluded followers who still believe that they can put this country on a democratic path by stifling democracy itself?

General Moeen, like his purported boss, Fakhruddin Ahmed, appears to have a preference for the foreign media. One will not come across too many exclusive interviews of the army chief in local publications (he did, however, give an exclusive to one of the private television channels that has seemingly gone out of its way to pander to this military-controlled regime). But when foreign media organisations come calling, the army chief, like the chief adviser, seems to oblige them far more willingly. Do both men suffer from the same complex? Do they both feel that their accountability is to the west rather than to the people of Bangladesh? After all, it is the resident representatives of our western development ‘partners’ who are believed to have instigated the January 11, 2007 intervention by the military in the first place, and it is they who have supported and propped up this regime ever since.

If the tendency of the principal players of the current regime to explain themselves to foreign audiences more willingly than to the people of this country is worrying, what is more worrying is their patent lack of appreciation of history. Our current army chief is not the first general to have unsuccessfully tried to bring about a qualitative change in a nation’s politics by giving it, in characteristic military style, short-term shock therapy. This has never worked in the past, in this subcontinent or elsewhere, and it will not work this time around. Addressing our democratic deficit will require more than a discredited anti-corruption drive and the desperate neutralisation of two iconic political leaders. General Musharraf tried this very tack in Pakistan and failed miserably. In our country, the fallout, political and economic, of this government’s ill-conceived agenda, which many believe is also designed to legitimise a greater long-term role for the military in national politics, will only be dire and frightening.

A sustainable democracy will not result in our country until our leaders work to establish the rule of law, uphold the fundamental rights of the citizens and allow democratic institutions to grow and flourish. Yet our current leadership, just like the elected and military leaders of the past, have continually undermined the rule of law, violated at will the rights of the people and continue to sidestep or destroy at every opportunity the institutions that are supposed to act as the pillars of a genuine democracy – a functioning legislature, an independent judiciary, an effective bureaucracy, civil society organisations that operate as non-partisan pressure groups and media that works to put additional checks and balances on government, not work as the mouth pieces of one or the other party or of an unelected, military-controlled regime.

Moreover, there is an inherent arrogance about our current rulers, who were never given a popular mandate but seem to believe in their own right not only to govern but also to determine who should govern in future. This may seem to most to be contrary to the basic democratic ideal of representative government, but it appears not to bother the chief protagonist of our present undemocratic dispensation in the least. To Time magazine, General Moeen stated that ‘you can judge the people of a nation by the type of leaders they select’. Given that the general admittedly has an extremely low opinion of the leaders that we ‘selected’ in the past; does this mean that he has an equally low opinion of us, the people, as well?

That would explain why he apparently feels little need to explain himself, his actions, or that of the current regime to the people of this country. But what are its implications for our democratic aspirations? If our present rulers, whose primary duty is to allow the people to freely and fairly choose their governors, do not feel that the people are up to it, what reason could we have to feel optimistic about a return to democratic rule? General Moeen also told Time magazine that the people need to be educated ‘so that they don’t keep on cutting off their own feet’. Who will judge when the people have been sufficiently educated? And what will happen to elections till that desired level of education has been attained? If the general feels that the people, at their present level of awareness, are not capable of making the right decisions, surely he is better off not affording the people that opportunity at all.

Given his apparent take on the matter, the bigger question is: does the general believe in a representative democracy at all where every person has an equal vote? Or does he feel that the choice of governors should be left up to a select group of educated and enlightened men such as himself? Right now, it seems that he feels compelled to show support for the former while he secretly believe in the latter.
 For those of us who feel that the only way to strengthen democracy is by allowing people more freedoms and greater choices, the implications of General Moeen’s statements to Time magazine are disheartening to say the least. When rulers lose faith in the ability of the people to decide for themselves what is best and, more worryingly, when they feel that they can openly and unashamedly insult those they govern, the result is usually the confiscation of the people’s democratic rights. That began with the declaration of the state of emergency that automatically suspended the fundamental rights of the people and the promulgation of the emergency power rules, which took away additional rights including the right to bail. When and under what circumstances those rights will be returned to the people remains anyone’s guess.

Interestingly, General Moeen reportedly feels that ‘no systems of government are bad in their own right, it’s the human beings who make it so’. That is probably why he feels that he can bring about a qualitative change in politics by getting rid of our current crop of political leaders and installing ‘effective leaders’ in their place, if need be by circumventing the democratic process. But is it not an effective system of checks and balances that is meant to keep the leaders honest? And do we not require functioning democratic institutions to ensure that those checks and balances exist and work? Our democracy’s many failings will not be addressed simply by imposing different leaders on the people. The sooner the army chief realises that and puts faith in the people’s ability to learn from their mistakes, the sooner will he allow us to re-embark on our democratic quest. directives of the High Court to stop this sinister practice.  



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