With subjects like these, the emperor needs no gunboats

NewAge, 18, 2008

Does the exercise of dwelling so long and hard on Moriarty’s Tuesday tea party risk becoming a storm in a teacup? Not quite, especially since we are currently living through a high noon of one of the most ambitious Anglo-American projects in Bangladesh’s history, writes Mahtab Haider*

 NOT to put too fine a point on it, US foreign policy, especially since its emergence as a military superpower, has rarely relied on sophisticated coercion — better known as diplomacy — to drive its security and trade interests home to foreign governments.

From the good old days of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ to ‘big stick diplomacy’ and eventually ‘dollar diplomacy’, the US has mostly preferred to exercise its hegemonic privilege of telling foreign governments what it wants in the crudest possible terms, acting ‘multilaterally when it can, and unilaterally when it must’, as former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright once said. Given, then, that it has been a series of diplomatic tea parties which seem to have adequately served US interests in Bangladesh over the past three years, and that neither gunboats, nor big sticks, nor even dollars were needed (US aid to Bangladesh declined by 90 per cent between 2001 and 2006) perhaps says more about our politics than it does about their diplomacy.

The latest in the series of tea parties that have evidently determined the course of Bangladesh’s democratic future took place on Tuesday evening, with some of the top leaders from the country’s major political parties seeming to fall over each other to attend. Newly appointed US ambassador James Moriarty had reportedly invited this cross section of politicians to his residence for tea, to hear their views on the current state of emergency, the promised national elections in December, and the local government polls scheduled for the intervening period. As the politicians who attended found out, carrying as they were pocketfuls of grievances against each other as well as against the military-controlled interim government, the top US diplomat in Dhaka was less keen to hear their views than offer some of his own.

So it was that when the politicians from all the major parties expressed a unanimous view that the state of emergency must be lifted before the national elections, the US ambassador appeared to agree, and yet disagreed, saying many ordinary Bangladeshis feared that the government would lose control of law and order if the emergency was lifted. It is a precious irony that the US ambassador assumed to voice the fears of ordinary Bangladeshis while advising our public representatives, many of whom have been elected to the national parliament multiple times, on how the country should be governed. And once again, when the politicians emphasised the need for national elections in the shortest possible time, according to the Bangla daily Prothom Alo, the US ambassador reportedly told them that it had taken his country 100 years to establish democracy, so they best not expect everything to happen so fast. And then, some of our oafish politicians, seeking to explain their urgency to see democracy restored ‘so fast’, reportedly told the US ambassador that in the age of ‘information technology’ things that took 100 years to happen in the past can now happen in less than a decade. Never mind representative governance, if the microchip weren’t invented, these worthless and silly politicians would have been happy to wait a century before an unelected military-backed regime relinquished power.

Does the exercise of dwelling so long and hard on Moriarty’s Tuesday tea party risk becoming a storm in a teacup? Not quite, especially since we are currently living through a high noon of one of the most ambitious Anglo-American ambassadorial projects in Bangladesh’s history. In the past 18 months since the military-controlled interim government assumed power, the European, British and US embassies and visiting dignitaries from their governments, have literally strutted and gloated over their collective role in bringing this regime to the helm. Neither former US ambassador Patricia Butenis nor her British counterpart Anwar Chowdhury ever took great pains to deny their instrumental role in seeing the January 22 elections suspended and a state of emergency declared by the president presumably at the behest of a band of army-backed technocrats. It is a telling fact that in 2007, US aid to Bangladesh surged to almost 200 per cent of its highest levels since 2001.

In the past 18 months, even while the use of torture and illegal detentions, not to mention encounter killings by a spectrum of security agencies, have increased, eliciting criticism from international human rights groups, these embassies have been uncharacteristically quiet. And why wouldn’t they be? Earlier this month, largely at the behest of the US and UK governments, the incumbents approved an anti-terrorism ordinance that now provides sweeping and draconian powers to the state security agencies in tackling ‘terrorism’ on the basis of ‘allegations’ and ‘suspicions’. ‘The Bangladesh government has been under pressure by its international supporters to adopt counterterror legislation. [We] urged the United Kingdom and United States and others not to push Bangladesh into adopting laws that violate basic rights or to adopt them without adequate public consultation,’ said a recent press release by the US-based Human Rights Watch.

Over the past decade, European and US diplomats stationed in Dhaka have become increasingly vocal and hands-on regarding the way successive governments have handled state affairs. The level of interference has gone from the traditional set of soft backroom tactics to more blatant public announcements at press conferences and dinners. So brazen is this new brand of diplomacy that only a day after Moriarty’s tea party elicited a rising crescendo of criticism from eminent citizens, mostly lambasting the politicians for allowing an ambassador to interfere in the country’s internal affairs, neither Moriarty nor most of the politicians hesitated in getting together for a Wednesday dinner, apparently for the diplomat to get an even more nuanced understanding of the current political scenario. It seems there might yet be a tea-party trilogy, with the US ambassador scheduled to return to the US on a short visit very soon and likely to return with a specific set of instructions on how Bangladesh will achieve its restoration of democracy, maybe by the turn of the century.

But perhaps I am too happily shooting the messenger. At the heart of this undiplomatic free-for-all that Bangladesh is experiencing is the subservient nature of our own public representatives. As one civil-society leader has rightly pointed out, our politicians seem to not know that it is the Bangladeshi people who elect them to public office, look, as they do continuously, for backdoor entrances into the corridors of power. How long have we, the ordinary citizens of Bangladesh, hoped that the two major political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, would sit down in civil terms and sort out their major differences ahead of an election? There is little that separates the two parties on ideological terrain, so their differences are mostly technicalities. And yet, when it is the British or the US ambassador who invites them for tea or dinner, their zeal to be seated together and discuss their differences seems to know no end. Is it the US state department’s fault that it neither needs gunboats nor dollars to see its interests served in Bangladesh, by a subservient cabal of its ‘subjects’? What a tragic present for a people with a glorious past of asserting self-rule and resisting the economic and political machinations of empire through the ages.

Needless to say, the actions and advice offered by the diplomats in question are far aground of the international norms defined by the Geneva Convention. How would the US president George W Bush appreciate it if a Bangladeshi ambassador visited the Oval Office to offer advice on a viable but much needed exit strategy in Iraq? Perhaps thinking themselves as legitimate players in the crude power politics that Bangladesh has witnessed in the past 18 years, these diplomats have abandoned the ‘diplomatic custom’ of keeping their views on the country’s internal affairs private. And what better co-hosts for this prolonged tea party than an unelected regime which too assumes to speak for the people without a legitimate claim to popular favour, and tea-party guests who will so readily insult and squander the popular favour the people bestowed on them?

Contact: mahtabhaider@gmail.com


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