Saturday, January 12, 2008

Dhaka Dilemma, a year after military rule in Bangladesh

MANEEZA HOSSAIN

TODAY marks the first anniversary of the momentous events of January 11, 2007, when Bangladesh's constitutional government was replaced by military rule. For 365 days, Bangladeshis have lived under a state of emergency: their constitutional rights have been suspended, civil liberties limited, and hundreds of thousands--ranging from former prime ministers to ad hoc peddlers--arrested under the banner of "fighting corruption." One year after taking power, the military "caretaker" government's promises to implement a better, truer democracy have not been fulfilled.

To the contrary, the unelected, para constitutional government of Bangladesh can claim credit for two appalling developments: the politicization of the army, which has blurred the lines between the army and civilian administration and has introduced into the army the same corruption rampant in Bangladeshi politics; and the creeping delegitimization of democracy, which has occurred as various undemocratic actions--arrests of perceived enemies, the exclusion of duly elected leaders from political life, the ban on "indoor politics," which forbids private political discussions--are normalized under the army's rule.

Despair is setting in among many Bangladeshis. But in the West, and even among some in Bangladesh, there is denial rather than despair. Some reject the idea that a military coup took place. Bangladesh's two previous military takeovers both had a visible military face. The uniqueness of the new takeover is that the military hand is hidden in the velvet glove of a renowned technocratic team, led by Fakhruddin Ahmed, an internationally acclaimed, world-class economist.

But the refusal to recognize the coup as a coup goes deeper than that. Perhaps Western democrats never believed Bangladesh really capable of democracy, or perhaps they are willing to endorse a fictional democracy if doing so is in line with perceived international interests. Or perhaps new global risks have prompted the international community to accept an unelected government in Bangladesh: the belief that Islamism must be contained at all costs is taken to justify support for this new order, even if it means the indefinite suspension of democracy.

It is hard not be reminded of Pakistan. Bangladesh, once known as East Pakistan, is afflicted by many of the same ills: Islamism is a rising threat; corruption has eroded the political system; democracy appears a luxury too dear for the present; and the military, as the foremost professional institution, is the most trustworthy partner against the rise of Islamism. In both countries, moreover, reform will depend on the government bureaucracy and the expatriates.

One difference between the two, however, is in the response of Western diplomats. When Parvez Musharraf declared the state of emergency in Pakistan in November 2007, governments of democratic nations expressed their disapproval and dismay. "The people of Pakistan deserve the opportunity to choose their leaders," declared John Negroponte when he flew over to Islamabad. But a year has passed since the military assumed power in Bangladesh, and the silence of much of the world amounts to complicity in the destruction of Bangladesh's democratic potential. While the West remains silent, Bangladesh sinks deeper into crisis. The country's currency has lost 10 percent of its value, leading businessmen are kept behind bars, and the price of commodities such as edible oil and rice are being forcibly kept down by the army's experiment in state-controlled economics.

Husain Haqqani, a Pakistan expert and advisor to the late Benazir Bhutto, has referred to the "Pakistanization" of Bangladesh. A decade from now, we may see in Bangladesh a politicized military that holds the reins of power, controls the economy, and has the final say in social, economic, and political affairs. We can likewise expect a shrunken and weakened political class exhausted from losing its leaders to exile, trial, intimidation. The other effect is likely to be a growing grassroots movement that appeals to urban as well as rural populations, that provides services parallel to the government's, and that--under the banner of an ever-radicalizing Islamism--offers an outlet for venting frustration with corrupt politicians and dire economic circumstances. We may even witness Western powers arranging for the return of a former prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, in response to the military's failure to contain the Islamist threat.

The current unelected government claims to pursue genuine democracy, respect for political pluralism, and avoidance of radical intolerance, but the course it is now following is not conducive to the fulfillment of these goals.

Still, Western governments seem inclined to continue their tacit support for the actions of the Bangladeshi Caretaker government--contingent on a timetable to elections. In turn, the Caretaker is adamant about excluding both former Prime Ministers ("the feuding ladies") from any future political role. What remains to be seen is whether the Bangladeshi electorate is willing to go along with this exclusionary stand. From the military's point of view, this remains a sine quo non. Political change will be limited to tinkering with the current configuration of façade players.

Instead of containing Islamism and paving the way for the blossoming of democracy, the current arrangement has delegitimized democracy in practice as well as in culture, and in doing so has helped to consolidate and strengthen Islamist movements. A sensible approach for the current government of Bangladesh would be to adhere to its formal task of preparing for elections using technical, not political, criteria. It should also immediately stop attempting to force reforms within political parties; this is a task that should be left for the electorate. Democrats worldwide, notably in India, Europe, and the United States, should unequivocally demand that the state of emergency be lifted at once in preparation for the restoration of democracy.

Yes, the Bangladeshi experimentation with democracy was riddled with problems. But that is the nature of democracy. A democracy's problems have to be resolved within the context of democracy, not within the context of military rule. #

Maneeza Hossain is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and author of Broken Pendulum: Bangladesh's Swing to Radicalism (Hudson Institute Press, 2007)

© Copyright 2007, News Corporation, Weekly Standard, January 11, 2008