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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 108

Bangladesh mirrors Pakistan

By M Rama Rao - Syndicate Features

The targeting of the leading personalities of BNP’s Begum Khaleda Zia and Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh mirrors what was done by General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan in the run up to consolidation of his hold on the country. India can only hope that the resemblance ends there. Given the current state of Pakistan where Islamic fundamentalists are, increasingly, calling the shots it would be unnerving that Delhi should have two rabidly fundamentalists regimes on its flanks and the murderous Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) snapping at its heels.

Frankly, the growing similarity in developments in Bangladesh and Pakistan does not inspire confidence that the Caretaker Government in Dhaka would be in any hurry to execute its Constitutional responsibility. The care-taker government is a uniquely Bangladesh creation. Its head is known as Chief Advisor to the Interim Government. Its primary duty is to act as a neutral umpire and hold free and fair elections once a popularly elected ministry completes its five-year term. Interestingly, however, there is no constitutional time frame within which the caretaker must handover the reins. It is this absence of time frame that is being exploited to the hilt by the military backed caretaker. It has imposed emergency and placed from March 7 a total ban on any form of political activity.

The regime’s strong-arm tactics against the BNP and AL are by now well documented. And need no special mention here. Suffice to say that these actions could be intended to make the beleaguered leaders accept the new dispensation that is taking shape without much demur. After the arrest of her son and heir, Tarique, on charges of corruption, Begum Khaleda Zia was amenable and willing to accept exile as a modus vivendi. It was Sheikh Hasina who had made it clear that she would contest the murder charge brought against her.

On hindsight it could be said that Hasina had tempted fate by taking off on a short trip to US and UK even as the move to send Begum Khaleda Zia into exile to Saudi Arabia) was in the works. That Britain should act with such alacrity on the Caretaker government’s request to prevent her from returning to Dacca could have something to do with geopolitics. Bangladesh troops are part of counter-terror forces operating in Afghanistan and Iraq and thereby helping the coalition forces with much-needed military manpower. Britain is suffering from battle fatigue in both these countries and even the remotest possibility that any element within the coalition forces should even threaten to withdraw could be traumatic.

In fact, the American suggestion that the Bangladesh Army should not jeopardise its peacekeeping roles by becoming directly involved in the governance of the country was a hint quickly taken note of in Dacca. However, the decision of the Caretaker government and its chief advisor Fakhruddin Ahmed, who was a former World Banker, to hold elections to the local bodies at an early date smacks of a leaf being plucked from Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf’s book of political tricks.

It may be recalled that Musharraf had strengthened his grassroots base by rigging the local bodies’ elections. He ensured that only handpicked persons (graduates) would be eligible to contest thereby in one stroke decapitating the political structure by rendering those who have traditionally held power but too busy to get a college education ineligible. Most Nazims who thus came to power in the local bodies elections are from the hardcore fundamentalist parties. Government largesse for them ensured their compliance with the diktat of the man who held all the important posts in the country ranging from President, Army Chief, Chief Executive Officer (under the Legal Framework Order), and Chairman of the National Security Council.

Needless to say, this experiment in grassroots democracy had emboldened Musharraf to rig the referendum that gave him his first five-year term as President of Pakistan. After the elections of the National Assembly (Parliament) he amended the Constitution to ensure that any former Prime Minister who had enjoyed the office for two terms would be disqualified from seeking re-election. Thus both exiled leaders Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party and Mian Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) were put out of reckoning. Both were Prime Ministers for two terms each.

Fakhruddin Ahmed’s Caretaker government in Bangladesh does anything only with the prior approval of the Army. In fact, Fakhruddin is rumoured to have been ‘handpicked’ for the job by the army chief Lieutenant General Moeen Uddin Ahmed. The caretaker government includes two retired major generals and a former police chief. The election commission (EC) includes a military officer for the first time—retired Brigadier General M. Sakhawat. The chairman of the powerful anti-corruption commission is a retired army chief, Lieutenant General Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury. So much so, the arrest of more than 210 political leaders, businessmen and former officials since January on ‘charges’ of corruption and other crimes indicates a proclivity to play politics by military personnel who had enjoyed power under military dictators. How far the comparison with Pakistan will play out depends on the interpretation army chief’s recent comments on the role of religion.

One thing is clear though. The army is responsible for the ‘indefinite’ postponement of Parliamentary elections, which were to have been held this January. The army also appears to favour some form of ‘guided’ democracy like in Pakistan.

Lt-Gen Moeen Ahmed has publicly spoken in favour of a limited role for religion and expressed himself in favour of liberal ethos. In the same breathe, he told a conference of the International Political Science Association in Dhaka on April 2 his vision of democracy for the country. “We do not want to go back to an ‘elective democracy’ where corruption becomes all pervasive, governance suffers in terms of insecurity and violation of rights, and where political criminalization threatens the very survival and integrity of the state,” the General declared.

Bangladesh, he said, would have to construct ‘its own brand of democracy, recognising its social, historical and cultural conditions, with religion being one of the several components of its national identity’. He went on to define this ‘own brand of democracy’ as a ‘balanced government’, where power is not tilted towards any family or dynasty. This speech prompted The Daily Star to editorially conclude,“[T]he army chief General Moeen Uddin Ahmed has confirmed that he is actually calling the shots as the real power behind the government”.

The usually reliable Dhaka rumour mill tells us that Moeen Ahmed has successfully neutralised the President Iajuddin Ahmed attempts to replace him, and has also thwarted pro-President officers like Major General Razzakul Haider Chowdhury, chief of the National Security Intelligence (NSI), and Brigadier General Abu Mohammad Sohel, chief of the President's Guard Regiment. The army has an overbearing presence in the National Security Council and the central and district level Anti-corruption Task Forces.

Pertinent, therefore, is the question whether Moeen Ahmed will be tempted to create a ‘king’s party’ by breaking both AL and BNP. Also whether he will strike a bargain deal with Islamists, who, according to latest reports, have regrouped notwithstanding the set back they suffered with the March 29 execution of Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), chief Shaikh Abdur Rahman, his second-in command, the dreaded Banga Bhai and four other king pins.

JMB, its off-shoot, Allar Dal, and Insaf of the Ahle Hadith faction have merged into a single outfit with Moulana Sayeedur Rahman as the ‘Ameer’. They have divided the country into nine operational zones and each Zonal chief reports to a six-member Majlish-e-Shura. A military expert Jahidul Islam Sumon alias Mizan alias Kamrul alias Nayan of Sheker Vita of Jamalpur is imparting training to the cadres in handling explosives, firearms and ammunition. The new group is on a massive recruitment spree targetting the unemployed youth. It is changing its name and operational headquarters frequently ostensibly to avoid excessive attention. For the present the new militant group is targetting police, judges, minority Ahmadiyya mosques and NGOs.

So, will the Bangladesh Gen go full hog the Pakistan General’s way? It is too early to say. Any how his inclinations are still under camouflage.

Gen Musharraf has demonstrated that “enlightened moderation” he is pursuing does not come in the way of seeking accommodation with the Mullahs. The kid- glove handling of the crisis created by the hyperactive Islamist “Lal Masjid” clerics in the heart of Islamabad is another manifestation of Musharrafism.

Lt Gen Moeen Ahmed can also draw a lesson from the ‘religious’ politics at home. Both BNP and the Awami League are never averse to tie up with Islamic parties. BNP ruled the country for five years in the company of Jamait-i-Islami and the Islami Oikaya Jote. The Awami League has the Khelafat-e-Majlish within its 14-party alliance. In other words, the Bangladesh army chief has plenty of home grown models to emulate.

For India, the litmus test for any regime in Bangladesh would be its attitude towards the many anti-India insurgencies that have sanctuaries and training facilities on Bangladesh soil. During the SAARC summit Chief Advisor to the Interim Government, Fakhruddin Ahmed made it a point to assure Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of his intention to crack down on NE ultras as well as the Islamists.

Recent developments in Bangladesh strengthen the view that the hanging of “Bangla Bhai” and his five co-conspirators was a gesture that does not indicate a particular mindset within the military establishment. The proof of the pudding would be in the eating and, as in the case with General Musharraf, India will have to await concrete proof that there is a crackdown on the jehadis.

- Syndicate Features -

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