Thursday, February 21, 2008

Bangladesh's model offers an alternative for countries immersed in conflict

Pics: Defacto military ruler Lt. General Moeen U. Ahmed

ROBERT I. ROTBERG


WITH PAKISTAN on edge ahead of Monday's parliamentary elections and opponents vowing to oust beleaguered President Pervez Musharraf, this is a good time to look at how another nearby predominantly Muslim country is faring under military rule.

Bangladesh and its nearly 150 million people have remained stable and largely peaceful under a very differently focused strongman, Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed.

Under Moeen's direction, the military intervention in Bangladesh has been largely measured. His approach offers a potential alternative path for developing countries immersed, as so many are, in interminable political conflict and infected by rampant corruption.

Bangladesh, once known as East Pakistan, has been a sovereign nation for less than four decades. It wrenched itself from the heavy grip of post partition Pakistan only in 1971, after a short but bloody civil war.

Since then, however, Bangladesh has been convulsed by its own internal battles. Many have occurred between civilians, and some between soldiers and civilians. But almost all have been about control and the spoils of Bangladesh. Few of the differences among the various contenders, whether in uniform or civilian dress, have been about ideology.

Chief among the civilians have been the dynastic political oligarchies of the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party. The Bangladesh National Party has been somewhat closer to India, and India's size, interests and relative economic power have greatly affected Bangladesh. But otherwise, there is little to separate the Bangladesh National Party from the Awami League.

What the two have most in common is a striving for power, a power that has provided access to great wealth. Transparency International has rated Bangladesh either the most corrupt country in the world, or nearly so, consistently since the 1990s.

Many nations are riven by ethnicity, language, religion or caste. Not so Bangladesh, one of the most homogenous large nations on Earth. About 95 percent of its people are Bengali-speaking Sunni Muslims.

The country was governed by Britain and British India until partition in 1947 as East Bengal; from partition to 1971, it was run by Musharraf's predecessors in what was then known as West Pakistan.

The American-trained Moeen assumed power in January 2007 after Bangladeshis, prompted by the Awami League, rioted in the streets of Dhaka, the capital.

The protests were aimed at the corrupt rule of the Bangladesh National Party and the prospects of unfair elections that would perpetuate BNP power.

Moeen expressed shock at television images, broadcast around the world, of Bangladeshis killing each other and destroying Dhaka.

The army had to separate the politicians, according to Moeen, and intervene to prevent bloodshed. Indeed, at the time and since, Bangladeshi public opinion has broadly supported the intervention.

The Awami League and the BNP had been feuding, with occasional bloodshed, since 1991, when civilians led by Khaleda Zia of the BNP replaced a previous military junta.

Power changed hands a few times over the next decade. But the various governments brought little economic growth and/or stability to Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Moeen's intervention, unlike Musharraf's coup in Pakistan in 1999, led not to direct military rule, but to the installation of a caretaker government of civilians. Moeen and the military act as the behind-the-scenes backbone of a largely technocratic government.

The acting president is styled as "chief adviser." The various Cabinet ministers are called "advisers" as well, such as "foreign affairs adviser," and so on.

Though Moeen and his fellow generals hold the ultimate reins of power, they largely try to stay in the background. Moeen "consults" with the chief adviser only a few times a week, according to officials. And he refrains from issuing "orders."

That makes Moeen's approach unusual, and conceivably more effective than the common, hands-on approach of soldiers in the developing world.

Moeen frequently reiterates that, as promised, full civilian rule will resume and elections will be held in December. Indeed, Moeen asserts that the dangers of soldiers staying on too long are greater than the risks posed should politicians reassert control and further corrupt the country.

Moeen has not invented a mechanism for vaccinating Bangladesh against a resumption of the feud between the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party. Nor will he. The army also refuses to intervene in the court cases now under way to determine whether former political rulers should be convicted of corruption, and thus of misrule.

Ready or not, the generals in Bangladesh will let civilians retake power in less than a year, in December.

Conceivably, a new national security council could be installed constitutionally to give the soldiers some continuing oversight of the country's political direction. That would be innovative, and it would provide another lesson for Pakistan and troubled developing countries everywhere.

Moeen and his colleagues are attempting to craft a new trajectory for a troubled Muslim country, a nation with its own potential for Islamic extremism. So far, the generals have succeeded in at least charting a new path between corrupt, inefficient civilians and heavy-handed military tyranny without arousing civil discontent or demonstrations.

Their quasi-democratic instincts could plot a path for others, even Pakistan, to follow. #

First published in Chicago Tribune, USA, February 17, 2008

Robert I. Rotberg directs Harvard University's Kennedy School program on intrastate conflict and is president of the World Peace Foundation. He recently visited Bangladesh