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Thursday, August 30, 2007

The picture that disturbed the equanimity of Gen. Moeen and his foot soldiers


I chanced to see the photo of a fleeing and terrified military officer who was about to be kicked from behind by a protester. The officer was probably worried and he wanted to get away from the main street and that explains why he was in hurry to retreat. It was a lucky day for the protester that the photographer very cleverly did not take the image of his face. Or else, he would be caught and taken at midnight hour for interrogation; never mind the physical abuse.

When I saw the image for the very first time, I chuckled to myself and did not think seriously about the ramification of this photo. But how wrong was I? On August 28, 2007 I saw the photo again in the net but this time it was in BBC news and the title of the news story was “It is an image that has caused the army much embarrassment.” I personally found the story as depicted in the BBC write-up a very intriguing one.

This image of a hatless army officer in terrified retreat and the sandled feet of a demonstrator about to kick the behind of the retreating army officer epitomizes the mess the joint forces of army, RAB, and police have made in Bangladesh during the three-day demonstration in late August 2007 in which tens and thousands of protestors took to the streets in bold defiance of the stricter laws that prohibit milling of ordinary citizens for the purpose of protestation.

While vividly describing the image, the BBC news man John Sudworth put it evocatively the mess the military is in right now in Bangladesh. He wrote as follows – “If a single image can sum up the thorny mess into which Bangladesh has once again stumbled, then this perhaps is it.”

John Sudworth was talking to rank and file of Bangladesh military on the first night of the curfew and he found out that the foot soldiers of Bangladesh were not very happy seeing the image in popular press. The BBC reporter summed it up as follows: “Its publication was seen as a humiliation, every bit as great as if that flying sandaled foot had been aimed at the behind of the army chief himself.”

What followed after quelling the rebellion is equally disturbing. The government's secret police visited the quarters of a few senior university teachers and they took them to unnamed destination where they were interrogated and tortured to extract information about student-led rebellion of the masses.

The chief advisor, law and information advisor, and the army chief had openly said that the mass rebellion was staged by the “enemy” of the nation by pumping crores of Taka (Bangladesh's monetary unit). They also put forth their pet notion that the rebellion was squashed by the government forces; therefore, a disaster was averted and Bangladesh saved from a bloody civil war. The same trio representing the government had said that a conspiracy was hatched to take advantage of the student protest to destabilize the nation and which was foiled.

The military-back government decided to teach a lesson to university professors who they think had instigated the student-led rebellion. Therefore, five professors were rounded up a la Gestapo tactic. At wee hours of the night the government’s secret service men armed to their teeth knock on the door to arrest these professors. The harrowing tale of the arrest of Prof. Anwar Hossain was narrated by his son, Sanjeeb Hossain. The family members did not know the whereabouts of Dr. Hossain but few days later the family learned via a whispering voice coming through a cellphone that he would be in a court. There, Sanjeeb met his father very briefly; they exchanged vital information and the professor told his son of the ordeal he had gone through. Apparently the senior professor was subjected to both psychological and physical torture.

Needless to say, this is a way with the military in Bangladesh. Only months ago a community leader belonging to minority Garo tribe by the name Choles Ritchil was whisked away by military men from a bridal party and later he was found lying dead with torture mark allover his body. Trust me, this won’t happen to the arrested professors because not only they are important people but also all eyes are on them. Through the blazing speed of the Internet expatriate Bangalees allover the world has come to know the plights of the arrested professors and some activists have already wrote e-petition and gathering signatures electronically. Mind you, some of these petitions are being directed to the U.N. Secretary General who may decide the fate of Bangladesh military for future peacekeeping mission. The other petitions are will be forwarded to various senators, congressmen in the U.S. and to the EU secretariat. Bangladesh depends heavily on donor nations for funding the nation's myriad developmental project. These days it is not difficult to launch a PR campaign via information highway. The military of Bangladesh may have their weapons but the expatriate Bangalees have far more powerful weapon to strangulate them via e-petitions.

Thanks also to the Internet for the dissemination of very disturbing images and accompanying news stories. They help form an opinion and trust me this time around many expatriate Bangalees who had the view that the military-backed interim government was onto doing some good work for the country by arresting some vile and corrupt politicians but when they learned that this wayward government is very much involved in other controversial things such as eviction of poor people from urban slums, re-engineering political parties, arresting many politicians on fabricated charges, and above all doing very little to check the soaring prices of everyday kitchen items, their cumulative ire fell on military who is the purveyor of Fakhruddin Administration.

Gen. Moeen, the man behind the interim government, cut his trip short and returned to Dhaka where he said that the military has averted a civil war. By all accounts, the student-led protest movement developed extemporaneously (carried out without much preparation) but the chief advisor, law and information advisor, and Gen. Moeen had smelled a conspiracy. Without naming any group or people they all said that the student protest movement was hijacked by the “enemy” of the state to destabilize and pit common masses against the army.

As the army-backed government of Fakhruddin was revealing its true color, the students at Dhaka University looked at the army inside the campus with nothing more than disdain and contempt. These soldiers suddenly represented Gen. Moeen and other military leaders who are the real power behind the civilian-led government. They did not like their presence in the campus. Therefore, when the soldiers roughed up some students, all the ire they had on army Generals fell on the garden variety soldiers. The protest movement then spilled over to neighboring areas and before one could count ten the movement spread like a wild fire. Strange things are known to happen when masses run amuck in the streets. The humiliation the army faced because of the photo of a terrified and retreating soldier graced the page of a popular newspaper. It was bad for the ego of Bangladesh military. That is the only reason when a military officer on patrol met BBC correspondent John Sudworth in the dead of the night, he said that how he hated that photo. The officer also thought that the newspaper was irresponsible to publish that image.

The blissful and easy cantonment life in Kurmitola that is full of hubris will never be the same after the publication of that disdainful image of the retreating and panic-stricken military officer. Bangladesh’s military perhaps needed this humiliation to make them understand that the public is upper hand because they pay for the easy lifestyle of an army that has no external enemy. No wonder Bangladesh army ever fought against any external enemy since the bloody birth of this nation in 1971. Just think for a moment how much of the GDP was siphoned year-after-year to look after this privileged men in uniform who only know how to turn their weapon against the public who foot their bill. #

Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA

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