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Friday, April 06, 2007

Remember the past, enjoy the interval

Mr. Milam's articles in the last 4 months have been quite impressive in predicting events in Bangladesh

IT takes three hours (much longer if it is Wagner), and much great music, for an opera to tell a simple story. The mind has great opportunity to wander through any political implications. In this case, a simple political principle emerged only implicitly: get the history right and operate on the basis of unvarnished fact, not on the myths that often dominate official histories.

I hesitate to begin this piece with the same quote from George Santayana that I have used at least once before, not least because it is not even my favourite Santayana quote—perhaps only my second-most favourite. But Santayana’s famous line, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” has often seemed to me—to paraphrase Marx—to be the iron law of politics in both Pakistan and Bangladesh. And Milam’s corollary to Santayana’s principle, “if you do remember the past, remember it right,” is also an important admonition that South Asian political leaders ignore at their own peril.

It is as if the political and military leaders in the two countries have severely challenged memories; they appear not to be able to remember the past; or they remember only a mythological version of the past. Moreover, they seem not able to understand that bad history or no history leads inevitably to the law of unintended consequences. This may explain why things continually go wrong.

I was reminded vividly of my corollary last Saturday when I caught a performance of a rarely seen or heard Richard Strauss opera, Die Aegyptische Helena (the Egyptian Helen), at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Though the music is rich and beautiful, the story is convoluted and fantastical, which may explain, in part, why the opera hadn’t been performed at the Met since 1928. But, despite the confusing story, I thought the ending had lessons for us all.

To try to summarise the story in a paragraph is impossible. The essential facts are that the Trojan War has ended after 10 long years. Helen (of Troy) has been recaptured by her husband, Menelaus, who killed Paris, the man who had spirited her away, and professes to want to kill her too. Being somewhat weak-minded, however, Menelaus can’t remember whether or not he has already done so. It is left unsaid (or unsung) whether Helen went to Troy with Paris willingly or not.

Helen wants to stay alive and, strangely enough, seems to want Menelaus to take her back (or maybe she just figures that the only way to stay alive is to convince him to take her back). A sorceress is helping her—I said it is fantastical—and gives her two magic potions, one to make Menelaus forget everything, the other to make him remember everything.

The crucial point is that Helen, even though the sorceress strongly recommends that she give Menelaus the forgetting potion, opts to give him the remembrance one. She reasons that trying to fool Menelaus with some fantasy of an unblemished past will not save her, that the only genuine solution is for him to remember the true past, as blemished as it might be. She is right; all is forgiven, and they all live happily ever after.

Of course, this opera is essentially about personal relationships—how to keep a marriage together under great stress. Though it is a stretch, I think Helen’s point about the use and misuse of history has application to the world of politics. That is one of the charms of opera. You can infer all kinds of general principles from stories about nothing more than how to get someone’s mate back.

It takes three hours (much longer if it is Wagner), and much great music, for an opera to tell a simple story. The mind has great opportunity to wander through any political implications. In this case, a simple political principle emerged only implicitly: get the history right and operate on the basis of unvarnished fact, not on the myths that often dominate official histories. As Helen noted in passing, the only way to genuine reconciliation is to recognise the past as it really was, blemishes and all, not as one wishes it had been.

It is interesting that political leaders, both civilian and military, see through some historical myths easily and adjust their actions to take account of the facts, yet are blind to others. The Bangladeshi Generals learned well from history that previous military interventions were forced to civilianise. So, on January 11, the Bangladesh Army moved from direct military intervention to civilianised military intervention in one day. It was, for the briefest few minutes, in direct control of the country. It claims to be just “assisting” the civilian government to reform the country’s politics so they can be returned completely to civilian control. Bangladeshis get restive quickly under military governments.

It is not clear, however, that the Generals and their civilian sidekicks have understood that even civilianised military interventions have a limited shelf life in Bangladesh. Almost three months after the army intervened, its specific agenda and timetable for restoring full civilian sovereignty is not known. The attitude of military exceptionalism may be growing as the reform agenda becomes longer, deeper and more complicated. So far the public has welcomed the intervention and the idea of reform, especially rooting out the corruption, but there is always the danger in Bangladesh of overstaying that welcome.

In Pakistan, President Musharraf appears to have escaped the trap of the historical mythology that surrounds the 60-year contentious relationship with India by his creative and flexible approach to the diplomatic process of gradually normalising relations. But I wonder if he understands that as each of his major predecessors accumulated power important segments of the polity became increasingly alienated. Ayub Khan, ZA Bhutto, even Zia-ul Huq, progressively lost the support of important political actors by their arbitrary actions. Ayub and ZAB lost their jobs and/or their lives as a result. (And possibly Zia-ul Huq too, if the theory that he was assassinated is true.)

Will the president’s arbitrary action against the chief justice lead ultimately to his downfall? Many of my informed friends think it will. I remain agnostic, but an objective look at Pakistani history would, I think, call for a strategy to defuse the problem in its early phase. Perhaps it is time for him to civilianise this military government even more by becoming a civilian himself. To do it on his own initiative, without it being forced on him by circumstances, would not only be a good reading of history but ensure that he will not end up a historical failure as those predecessors did. It might even prolong his political career.

And in regard to any kind of career, I return to Santayana and my favourite among his many worthy quotes, “there is no cure for birth or death save to enjoy the interval.” It is hard sometimes for me to understand how any honest man in politics can enjoy the interval. When one appears we need to be certain that he reads history correctly so he can. #

William Milam is a former US ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. He is currently at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC

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1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately amidst all the excitement and hoopla about the "new arrangements" in Bangladesh it remains to a former representative of 'empire' to remind us of the importance of history and its lessons. How ironic is that? But then we educated middle class Bengalis have never been accused of understanding irony.
    - Robin Khundkar