Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What Pakistan thinks today, Bangladesh thinks tomorrow

Dhaka on the Path to Islamabad?


ONE year ago, on January 11, 2007, Bangladesh's troubled constitutional government was replaced by military rule. Since then, 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."

Instead of fulfilling a promise to establish better, truer democracy, the unelected, paraconstitutional 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 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.

All quiet on the Western front
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, for the uniqueness of this particular event unlike Bangladesh's two previous military takeovers, is that the military hand is hidden in the velvet glove of a civilian, technocratic team.

Perhaps Western democrats are quiet about this coup because 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 deemed the most trustworthy partner against the rise of Islamism.

One difference between the two is in the response of Western diplomats. When Pervez Musharraf declared the state of emergency in Pakistan in November 2007, other democratic governments expressed their disapproval. "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 a sizeable fraction of its value, leading businessmen are kept behind bars, the price of everyday commodities has shot up, and hunger is increasing alarmingly, putting further burden on the country’s poor.

The dangers ahead
If these trends continue, a Pakistan-like outcome is not unlikely. Years from now, a politicized military may still be holding the reins of power in Bangladesh, with the final say in social, economic, and political affairs. The political class may be shrunken and exhausted from losing its leaders to exile, trial, intimidation, or worse. Political corruption may be replaced by that of the military.

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.

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.

Not the right cure
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.

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. #

First published in ProgressiveBangladesh.org, January 14, 2008

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