Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Is General Moeen in Musharraf's shoe?


IN OUR preoccupation with Pakistan and its embattled president, many of us have almost forgotten another South Asian country and another general encountering another pro-democracy movement. General Moeen U Ahmed, chief of the Bangladesh armed forces, was in New Delhi for a week since February 24 to remind India and the region of his role as the other Pervez Musharraf.

Moeen was supposed to be here on a "military-to-military" mission, and met Indian counterpart Deepak Kapoor and External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, reportedly to discuss cooperation in defence. Moeen, however, did not stop there.

It has been made public on his behalf that that he pleaded with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government to help make Bangladesh safe for restored democracy by prevailing upon Bangladesh's two most prominent contenders for civilian power not to return to electoral politics. The reported plea warrants the presumption that the recent events in Pakistan prompted Moeen's India visit, which was put off last year on the officially cited ground of floods in Bangladesh.

The Musharraf syndrome is manifestly obvious here. As Pakistan's military ruler, its present president of uncertain powers had for years tried to prevent the country's two most prominent aspirants for civilian power from returning home and joining electoral politics. He was forced, however, to allow the return of former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif - and even of the elections. Musharraf continues to be engaged in a contained confrontation with Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari - Bhutto's husband who is playing her political role after her horrible end.

Moeen, of course, is no president, but he is the power behind the throne in Bangladesh. The army-backed government in Dhaka, too, tried to exile former Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia, but failed. Moeen and his men also tried to prevent the return of Hasina from a visit abroad, and failed again under international pressure. The leaders of the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), however, have been kept away from all political activities through a slew of corruption cases and long spells of under-trial detention.

Indications have been reported of Moeen's possible plans to install himself eventually as the president in the place of Fakruddin Ahmed, in charge of the current caretaker regime. It is not known, however, whether something like Pakistan's National Reconciliation Order, freeing the two leaders from corruption cases, will precede such a move. But there is another respect, certainly, in which Moeen is trying to do a Musharraf.

Musharraf may not really have profited by splitting Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and forming a party named after the Quaid-e-Azam (the title of Pakistan's founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah.) The PML-Q has ended up a distant third, after Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the PML-Nawaz, in the recent general election. The example, however, has not deterred Moeen from making a similar effort to give himself political legitimacy in the Bangladesh general election that the caretaker regime has promised to hold before the year end.

Last year, the army-backed government in Dhaka tried its utmost to push Nobel-winning economist Muhammad Yunus into politics and help him form a party to end both main parties. The attempt proved abortive, with Yunus seeing through the cynical game. Efforts followed to break the both the AL and the BNP. Not much success has attended these efforts, and the parties as a whole have remained loyal to the harassed leaders with halos of their own.

Moeen and his men, however, have not given up. According to informed observers, he would like to be sure of a two-thirds majority in a new parliament to ratify the 37 ordinances, through which he has ruled the country for the last 13 months. Will two split-away parties give Moeen what a single one could not provide Musharraf? Few observers will answer that in the affirmative.

Moeen would appear to have no illusions about what a real democracy can do for him. Even as far back as last April, he caused more than a few political ripples by declaring at a public meeting that Bangladesh would not return to "an elective democracy." Days ago, he elaborated on the same theme. Asserting that the country had tried "Westminster-type parliamentary democracy for the last 15 years," but could not make it work, he called for "a form of democracy that is suitable for us."

The particular form of democracy he has in mind may suit neither the major political parties nor the people used to polls. Nothing, however, would suit the army more, or the religious parties and forces, particularly the Jamaat-e-Islami, which, as a member of Begum Zia's coalition regime, distinguished itself by its divisive role in the Bangladesh society. The poor electoral showing of the clerical parties in Pakistan has not made their Bangladeshi counterparts ardent partisans of ballot politics either.

Moeen and the army-propped regime were able to delay the democratic process for quite some time with an anti-corruption campaign that brought some of the political luminaries of the past to law. The glamour of the campaign, however, has worn thin, with its perceived excesses hitting the country's economy and with graft in the army and in select political circles appearing to have been placed outside its purview. The anti-corruption crusade has lost its attraction all the more following the recent steep spiral in the prices of rice, pulses and other essential commodities.

All this has not been lost on Moeen and his mandarins in the caretaker regime. They crushed a rebellion of campus origin months ago, but they know that popular discontent can find a dangerous expression again. They have made certain moves to win over the political opposition. This include official initiatives to rehabilitate martyred Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, liberator of Bangladesh and father of Hasina, as the "Father of the Nation," and Ziaur Rahman, former president and husband of Begum Khaleda Zia as a "patriot," besides a promise to try the "war criminals of 1971." By most accounts, however, the moves cannot succeed in stalling the pro-democracy movement.

It is interesting to recall, in this context, that Moeen himself was in Pakistan during the Bangladesh Liberation War and joined and returned to the country's armed forces as a "repatriated officer." The past record itself may not go against his current political ambitions. As in Musharraf's case, however, a massive democratic upsurge can do so. #

First published in t r u t h o u t | Perspective, March 2, 2008

J. Sri Raman is Convener of the Movement Against Nuclear Weapons (MANW), based in Chennai, India, and of Journalists Against Nuclear Weapons (JANW), India