Archive for the ‘Military Inc.’ Category

Lalon and Terror: Re-configuring the nation’s political map during emergency

October 29, 2008

NewAge, October 29, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

In the name of bringing ‘beauty’ to politics in Bangladesh, the lineaments of political reconfiguration undertaken by this military-backed caretaker government are becoming ominously clear: mainstream political parties in shambles, Jamaat-e-Islami intact, Muslim clerics and Islamic forces re-emerging as a political force under state patronage, and the exercise of rampant power by western diplomats, writes Rahnuma Ahmed*

Drifting in cage and out again

Hark unknown bird does fly

Shackles of my heart

If my arms could entwine

With them I would thee bind

Fakir Lalon Shah, Khachar bhitor ochin pakhi
   Translation by Shahidul Alam

Baul sculpture and the nation’s most powerful man

‘NO DECISION is taken without the army chief’s consent, that’s why we informed him,’ said Maulana Noor Hossain Noorani, amir of Khatme Nabuwat Andolon Bangladesh and imam of the Fayedabad mosque, at a press conference. ‘He didn’t like the idea of setting up an idol either, right in front of the airport, so close to the Hajji camp. It was removed at his initiative’ (Prothom Alo, October 17).

The ‘it’ in question was a piece of sculpture, of five baul mystics and singers. Titled Unknown Bird in a Cage, it was being created in front of Zia International Airport, Dhaka. Madrassah students and masjid imams of adjoining areas were mobilised, the Bimanbondor Golchottor Murti Protirodh Committee (Committee to Resist Idols at Airport Roundabout) was formed. A 24-hour ultimatum was given. The art work, nearly seventy per cent complete, was removed by employees of the Roads and Highways Department and the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh.

Artists, intellectuals, cultural activists, writers, teachers, students, and many others have since continuously protested against the removal of the sculpture, both in Dhaka, and other cities and towns of Bangladesh. They have demanded its restoration, have re-named the roundabout Lalon Chottor, and accused the military-backed caretaker government of capitulating, yet again, to the demands of Islamic extremists, and forces opposing the 1971 war of liberation.

Soon after its removal, Fazlul Haq Amini, chairman of a faction of Islami Oikya Jote and amir of Islami Ain Bastabayan Committee said at a press conference, if an Islamic government comes to power, all statues built by Sheikh Hasina’s government (1996-2001) will be demolished, since statues are ‘dangerously anti-Islamic’. Eternal flames, Shikha Chironton (Liberation War Museum), and Shikha Anirban (Dhaka Cantonment) will be extinguished. ‘Paying respect to fire is the same as worshipping fire.’ What about statues built during Khaleda Zia-led four-party alliance government (of which he had been a part)? ‘Where, which ones?’ Rajshahi University campus was the prompt reply. ‘Why didn’t you raise these questions when you were in power?’ ‘We did, personally, but they didn’t listen. We were used as stepping stones.’ Amini also demanded that the National Women Development Policy 2008, shelved this year after protests by a section of Muslim clerics and some Islamic parties, should be scrapped (Prothom Alo, October 18).

Noorani and his followers demand that a hajj minar should be built instead, and the road should be re-named Hajj road. ‘Men from the administration and the intelligence agencies,’ he said at the press conference, ‘wore off their shoes, they kept coming to us.’ (Prothom Alo, October 17). Now where had I read of close contacts between Khatme Nabuwat and the intelligence agencies?

I remembered. A Human Rights Watch report, Bangladesh: Breach of Faith (2005), had stated that Khatme Nabuwat had close links to the ruling BNP through the Jamaat-e-Islami and the IOJ, its coalition partners. I remembered other things too. It was the same Noor Hossain Noorani who had said Tarique Rahman, senior secretary general of the BNP, was their ‘amir and same-aged friend,’ and had threatened police officials saying Tarique would directly intervene if Khatme Nabuwat’s anti-Ahmadiyya campaign was obstructed. According to reports, high-up intelligence agency officials (DGFI, NSI) had mediated contacts between the ruling party and Khatme Nabuwat. He had met the DGFI chief in Dhaka cantonment thrice, Noorani had thus boasted to Satkhira reporters in 2005, a statement never publicly refuted by the intelligence agency (Tasneem Khalil, The Prince of Bogra, Forum, April 2007, issue withdrawn, article available on the internet).

What links does the present military-backed caretaker government, and more so, its intelligence agencies, have with these extremist groups? I cannot help but wonder. Is there more to what’s happening than meets the eye?

Other questions pop into my head. The baul sculpture was not advertised, as public art should be. No open competition, no short-listing, no selection panel. On the contrary, the contract seems to have been awarded as a personal dispensation. The only condition seems to have been that the sculptor must get hold of a sponsor. High regard for public art, for baul tradition, listed by the UNESCO as a world cultural heritage, and for procedural matters. Particularly by a government whose raison d’etre is establishing the rule of law and rooting out corruption.

Simplifying the present: from ‘1971’ to the ‘Talibanisation’ of Bangladesh

British historian Eric Hobsbawm terms what he calls the ‘short twentieth century’, The Age of Extremes (1994). I can’t help but think, things seem to be getting more extreme in the twenty-first century.
   In his most recent book, On Empire: America, War and Global Supremacy (2008), Hobsbawm traces the rise of American hegemony, the steadily increasing world disorder in the context of rapidly growing inequalities created by rampant free-market globalisation, the American government’s use of the threat of terrorism as an excuse for unilateral deployment of its global power, the launching of wars of aggression when it sees fit, and its absolute disregard of formerly accepted international conventions.

The US government’s role in not only contributing to the situation, but in constituting the conditions that have given rise to extremes, of being the extreme, is disregarded by many Bangladesh scholars, whether at home or abroad. Most of these writings are atrociously naïve, exhibiting a theoretical incapacity to deal with questions of global inequalities in power. Authors repeatedly portray American power – in whichever manifestation, whether economic or cultural, military or ideological – as being benign. Two images of Bangladesh are juxtaposed against each other, a secular Bangladesh of the early 1970s, the fruit of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle of 1971, and a Talibanised Bangladesh of recent years. ‘National particularities’ and ‘the dynamics of domestic policies’ are emphasised (undoubtedly important), but inevitably at the cost of leaving the policies of US empire-building efforts un-examined.

One instance is Maneeza Hossain, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, who, in her 60-page study of the growth of Islamism in Bangladesh politics, tucks in a hurried mention of the US’ supply of weaponry to Afghan jihadists, and moves on to call on the US to shake off its ‘indifference’ to Bangladesh, to use its ‘good offices’ to help democratic forces within Bangladesh prevail (Broken Pendulum: Bangladesh’s Swing to Radicalism, 2007).

Ali Riaz, who teaches at Illinois State University, author of God Willing: The Politics of Islamism in Bangladesh (2004), provides another instance. International reasons for the rise of militancy are the Afghan war, internationalisation of resistance to Soviet occupation, policies of so-called charitable organisations of the Middle East and Persian Gulf, and (last, it would also seem, the least) ‘American foreign policy’. A token mention showing utter disregard towards 1,273,378 Iraqi deaths, caused by the invasion and occupation. 1971 was genocidal, but so is the Iraq invasion. On a much larger scale. Unconcerned, he goes on, policy circles in the US are ‘apprehensive’ about militancy in Bangladesh. Even now. The solution? He advocates open debates, particularly between the intelligence agencies and the political parties (Prothom Alo, February 3).

And then one comes across Farooq Sobhan who claims that president Bush has ‘taken pains’ to convince Muslims that the war against terror is not a war against Islam or a clash of civilisations (no, it’s a crime against humanity). Rather petulantly, he asks, why has Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country, not figured prominently on the US ‘list of countries to be wooed and cultivated.’ Further, he writes, ‘High on the US agenda has been the issue of Bangladesh sending troops to Iraq.’ Sending ‘troops’, like crates of banana, or tea? Surely, there are substantive issues – of death and destruction of Iraqis and Iraq, of war crimes – involved.

Re-configuring politics during emergency

Creating a level playing field so that free and fair national elections could be held, that’s what the military-backed caretaker government had promised. Twenty-two months later, after failed attempts at minusing Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, with their respective parties in shambles, thousands of party workers in prison, constitutional rights suspended due to the state of emergency, economy in tatters, police crackdowns on protests of garments workers, jute mill workers, women’s organisations and activists, on human chains against increasing prices of essentials, the only two forces to have remained unscathed are the Jamaat-e-Islami, and Muslim clerics, Islamic parties and madrassah students, those who protested against the Women Development Policy, agitated for the removal of baul sculptures, recently caused havoc in the Dhaka University vice-chancellor’s office protesting against newly-enforced admission requirements. Are these accidental, or deliberate governmental moves? I cannot help but wonder.

Several western diplomats – members of the infamous Tuesday Club, particularly ambassadors from United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and the EU representative – and also the UN resident coordinator actively intervened in Bangladesh politics prior to January 11, 2007, in events that led to the emergence of the present military-backed caretaker government. Renata Dessalien did so to unheard degrees, leading to recent demands that the UN resident coordinator be withdrawn.

In a week or so, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, arrives in Dhaka, to see for himself electoral preparations, and extend support for the government. A visit that has nothing to do with politics, we are told. In the eyes of many observers, Ban is one of the most pro-American secretaries general in its 62-year history. He has opposed calls for a swift US withdrawal from Iraq, and is committed to a beefed-up UN presence in Baghdad. The UN staff committee has protested against Ban’s decision saying it would ‘make the institution complicit in an intractable US-made crisis’ (Washington Post, September 24, 2007).

In the name of bringing ‘beauty’ to politics in Bangladesh, the lineaments of political reconfiguration undertaken by this military-backed caretaker government are becoming ominously clear: mainstream political parties in shambles, Jamaat-e-Islami intact (‘democratic party’, Richard Boucher, US assistant secretary of state, 2006), Muslim clerics and Islamic forces re-emerging as a political force under state patronage, and the exercise of rampant power by western diplomats.

A beast in the guise of beauty? Time will tell.

On the flight path of American power

I borrow the title from British-Pakistani historian Tariq Ali’s coming event – ‘Pakistan/Afghanistan: on the Flight Path of American Power’ – to be held at Toronto, November 14.

Seven years after the US-led invasion, Pakistan, America’s strong military ally, is now ‘on the edge’ of ruin. Pakistani political analysts repeatedly warn Bangladeshis that they see similar political patterns at work here: minusing political leaders, militarisation, milbus, National Security Council, etc, etc. I do not think that an Obama win will make any difference to the American flight path for unilateral power. As astute political commentators point out, Obama and McCain differ on domestic policies, not substantively on US foreign policy. A couple of days ago, president Bush signed the highest defence budget since World War II.

Maybe there should be an open public debate in Bangladesh, as Ali Riaz proposes, but with a different agenda: Are we being set on America’s flight path to greater power by this unconstitutional, unrepresentative government, one which is more accountable to western forces, than to us?


BDR unwilling to to pay Tk 4.25cr ‘profit’ from OMS in govt fund

July 15, 2008

Mustafizur Rahman, NewAge, July 15, 2008

The Bangladesh Rifles is not willing to deposit ‘profit money’ of Tk 4.25 crore from open market sales of rice to the government exchequer despite requests by the authorities concerned, said official sources.

‘The BDR has told the Food Directorate in writing that it has spent the money to meet the cost of transportation, handling, preservation, labourers, packing and also loss of weight. We have not accepted the explanation…The BDR is not entitled to charge all these costs as its members draw their salaries from the public fund,’ a senior official of the food and
 disaster management ministry told New Age on Monday.

He said that only OMS dealers were entitled to take profit and other costs for shop rent, labour costs, handling and transportation. ‘The BDR will be asked to give an account of the head-wise expenditure in line with the government’s approved rates…As per the OMS guidelines, only dealers are entitled to the margin [Tk 1/1.50 a kg] between the selling price at OMS outlets and the buying rate at delivery point.’
 ‘We supplied 35,000 tonnes of rice at Tk 24/23.50 a kilogram, and the selling rate was fixed at Tk 25 a kg at the OMS outlets. For this reason, we requested the BDR to deposit the margin of Tk 1/1.5 gained after selling each kg of rice to the government fund,’ said an official of the Food Directorate.

The government provided the BDR with 35,000 tonnes of rice from the public food distribution system for open market sales at outlets in Dhaka and Khulna at the rate of Tk 25 per kg in fiscal year 2007-08 to cushion the low-income group from the soaring commodity prices and keep the rice market stable by increasing its availability.

‘We have demanded the handling and other operational costs that are given to the OMS dealers. Nothing has been done in violation of the government’s rules in this regard. We had to hire commercial vehicles for transportation and labourers for operating the OMS outlets,’ the BDR’s director-general, Major General Shakil Ahmed, told New Age on Monday.

He said the BDR had submitted its explanation for the expenditures incurred.
 On July, 9, 2008, a meeting of the food planning and monitoring unit, presided over by the food adviser, directed the authorities concerned to again request the BDR to give a detailed explanation of the head-wise expenditures at the government’s approved rates to prevent any audit disputes in this case, said official sources.

The director-general of the Food Directorate issued a letter to the BDR in early June, requesting its DG to submit the sum of Tk 4.25 crore, which it earned from the open market sales of rice, to the government’s fund.

The messiah syndrome

July 1, 2008

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.