BANGLADESH AND PAKISTAN, Flirting with Failure in South Asia By William B. Milam
Candid Comments by SHAMSHER M. CHOWDHURY, Bir Bikram
AMBASSADOR WILLIAM B. Milam, or Bill Milam as he is popularly called, takes us on a journey in his book through the political evolution in Bangladesh and Pakistan in the period following their break up as one country and the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state in 1971. Having served as the Ambassador of the United States to both these countries, it would be fair to assume that Ambassador Milam would have had a ringside view to follow developments closely enough to reach the conclusions that he has in his book.
In the words of the author, the book is interspersed with several motifs. Religion is one, and understandably so since it was religion that was the basis for partitioning India after the British Raj ended in 1947. As a corollary to that, culture has been cited as the second motif and history is the third. A recurring motif is the relations of both of these countries with their giant neighbor India. A common element is the role of the military in the political developments in both of the countries.
I will understandably confine my comments to the Bangladesh segments only.
In the case of Bangladesh, Milam believed that with the reintroduction of democratic political civilian led government in early nineteen nineties, the military had retreated to the barracks for good. He was less sure about that in the case of Pakistan. This was the main conclusion when the book was ready for print in early 2007. But events in Bangladesh in January 2007 forced him to change all that and the book needed rewording before it was finally published in 2009.
In the ‘Introduction’ chapter, Milam blames the “poisonous, zero-sum, political culture of the major political forces in Bangladesh that created the opportunity for a return of the military in January 2007, albeit, this time behind a civilian façade. In chapter 6 he details how this zero-sum game was played out in the fifteen plus years of civil political rule since 1991, resulting in a violent and confrontational political culture where the only real losers were the very voters who had entrusted these very politicians with their fate.
In writing for the Pakistani English daily “Daily Times” on January 24th, 2007, Ambassador Milam wondered whether the intervention in Bangladesh on 11th January 2007, would lead the country back from the brink or plunge it in the drink.
As we now see with hindsight, the solution, especially the introduction of a state of emergency and its gross misuse, only served to destroy the very political fabric of the country. Most commentators give the interim government at best a mixed scorecard. All agree it was powerless. The infamous, and abortive, “minus two’ formula and the highly politicized anti-corruption drive were its two most stark failures, not to mention the gross use of physical and mental torture on people under custody in violation of international conventions to which Bangladesh is signatory. They even made “Reform” sound like a dirty word, almost synonymous with collaborating with the enemy. In an attempt to “cleanse” the society of corrupt government and political officials, this government launched the much touted ‘Truth and Accountability Commission’ (Referred to in the book). As events subsequently prove, this was not just a cruel joke; it was a corrupt concept that ran counter to the very fundamental of the country’s Constitution that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law. Worse, it was an exercise in deception.
In the epilogue, Ambassador Milam characterizes the publishing of a voter list with photos and the issuances of a National Identity Card (NID) as a remarkable achievement of the interim government. On Election Day in December 2008, there appeared, inexplicably, a second voter’s list, without photos whose authenticity is yet to be measured. As regards the NID, fake and counterfeit ones are now increasingly available in the market!
I thought it prudent here to briefly analyze the period of emergency to put things in perspective.
Milam talks at length, and presents his assessments, of personalities whose very names define the political landscape of Bangladesh even long after their violent departure from the scene—Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman. Chapters 2 and 3 are dedicated to that, although Pakistan’s Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto is mentioned in details in chapter 2, but only in the context of Pakistan.
In the opening narration of chapter 2, Milam describes Sheikh Mujib and Bhutto as “flawed leaders” with limited intellect or ability to “…anticipate possible future events”……. and they failed to “build upon promising democratic beginnings”. He says that they both assumed leadership in a “burst of expectation and optimism but were unable to cash in on the strong mandate they had to nurture and establish viable democracies.” He calls both of them “historical failures because there own flaws were important contributing factors to the demise of democracy on their watch” in their respective countries.
Talking about the beginning of Bangladesh’ journey as an Independent State following its victory in 1971, Milam mentions the inherent positives the country possessed: a surfeit of good feeling and enthusiasm and a sense of euphoria that helped the early developments like writing a Constitution in a “remarkably short time frame”. Despite the negatives like abject poverty and illiteracy, not to mention the wanton damage caused by the occupying Pakistani Army during the period of the Liberation War, Bangladesh, in the words of Milam, “was relatively fertile soil for democracy” that bestowed on Bangladesh a more advantageous beginning than many newly independent, developing countries. But then he talks of the “surfeit of corruption, venality, self-aggrandizement……” that quickly engulfed the country, exacerbated by the new government’s mismanagement of the economic recovery and “overt favoritism towards its own partisans”. A rather prophetic comment is made by the author in the concluding paragraph on page 30 when he says “The civilian regime took office with overwhelming support, but its hold on the loyalties of most Bangladeshis was dissipated after three years to a point that undemocratic alternatives became attractive as early as 1975.”
Ambassador Milam characterizes Sheikh Mujib’s period of governance as one from ‘Euphoria to Neuralgia’. Mujib is described as the undisputed leader of a new Bangladesh, who was faced with the daunting task of rebuilding a country shattered by the civil war, with a dysfunctional economy and crippled transportation system, severe law and order problems and a population displaced far and wide. As mentioned earlier, the author credits, and rightly so, the government of the day with framing a liberal, democratic Constitution with an independent judiciary for the new country within a short time. But, as mentioned in the book, with increasing political and economic pressure, adherence to liberal constitutionalism and judicial independence broke down by the end of 1974.
In page 34, the author writes about Mujib sinking into “a bog of corruption and ineptitude”. He describes Mujib as a good example of charismatic leaders of independent movements who do not always possess the organizational skills or intellectual flexibility to lead successfully the country their charisma had brought about. The subsequent paragraphs goes into details how this charismatic leader seemed to be “woefully short” of the essential mental agility needed to mold the new country into a viable nation. Milam is particularly critical of the socialistic economic policy pursued by the Awami League government under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Large scale nationalization of both the manufacturing sector, specially the jute industry, and the service sector, banks and insurance was severely damaging.
The author calls the Parliamentary elections of March 1973 as the “beginning of the end” for Mujib. Till then Sheikh Mujib and his party still enjoyed relative popularity but the accumulating problems had reduced its appeal. Hence the Awami League leaders “couldn’t resist padding the result by blatantly and unnecessarily rigging the polls”. In the words of the author, this exacerbated what had already become ‘widespread and growing popular discontent with Mujib and the League’. Things indeed got worse by the reign of terror launched by the much despised Jatiya Rakhi Bahini.
In the following paragraphs Milam writes how this sense of discontentment continued to grow into widening dissulionment. With the introduction of the one party governance system (BAKSAL) by amending the Constitution to a Presidential one and thereby giving Sheikh Mujib more personal power, “as if lack of power were at the root of his problems, rather than bad policies combined with overt corruption and incompetence” (page 37)………“Bangladesh had been transformed from a democracy into a personal dictatorship by the man who led its independence movement” (page 38).
Milam completes his narrative on this charismatic leader by briefly describing the events of his violent and brutal death, and that of most of his family members, in the early morning of 15th August, 1975. He says “popular esteem for Mujib had fallen so low by then that few lamented this brutal act, but its legacy continues to haunt Bangladeshi politics.”
Chapter 3 of the book is exclusively about Ziaur Rahman and his governance from 1975 to his “untimely” death in 1981; he calls this period “A short lived but fecund era” and he calls Zia’s politics as one of “hope and transition”. The word fecund has been used here to mean ‘very productive, or creative intellectually’.
Talking of how Ziaur Rahman was thrust into the leadership in Bangladesh following the chaotic period caused by military attempts to govern following Sheikh Mujib’s assassination in 1975, Milam states one of Zia’s early acts after he became Chief Martial Law Administrator was to rescind Mujib’s one party system. As Zia slowly but surely consolidated his power and “enhanced his already widespread popularity”, he set about traveling all over the country mingling with the common people in a “new and unprecedented form of politicking” spreading “offer of hope for a better future”.
Like other military rulers in South Asia, and elsewhere, before and after him, Zia “developed political ambitions and much of Bangladesh supported those aspirations as the first ray of optimism in their hard-scrabble lives’. Milam describes Ziaur Rahman becoming President in April 1977 as “a reflection of his immense popularity with the public”.
Milam talks at some length on ‘Zia’s fledging democracy’ and says President Zia’s economic and social programmes ‘laid the basis of a far-reaching social revolution’ which continued to build momentum, and no government, no matter how autocratic, “could have halted this revolution….” The economy was progressing and social development was approaching “take off”.
In page 61, Bill Milam talks of Zia’s killing and says the “hope for democracy dies with him”. However, Milam is critical of Zia’s inability as President to strengthen institutions that underpin a democratic system and he set in motion some trends that undermine it like “acquiescence to corruption as a way to buy off potential enemies”…and he had not “set up a mechanism for the automatic and peaceful transfer of power”.
In the closing parts of his narratives on this ‘extraordinarily popular’ man, Ambassador Milam tries to fathom the ‘Enigma of Ziaur Rahman’. On the one hand he was a military leader, a national hero, (he was the first to announce the formation of provisional government of Bangladesh from a radio station in Chittagong in March, 1971, page 35), and yet one “who returned his country to civilian rule and to civilian dominated two party electoral democracy” and “whether that was by design or default shall never be known”. One thing seemed clear to the author that Zia was “a pragmatic nationalist” and that was his main —- maybe his only —– principle. He used democratic processes to wield political power but doubts he believed in them. He used corruption to ensure loyalty but was incorruptible himself. He also discarded some of the important principles for which he had fought a bloody war of separation from Pakistan, to which Zia’s response was a typical combination of pragmatism and political vision —– a desire “to unite and integrate the entire population of Bangladesh into a national identity” (page 67). The iconic Nelson Mandela once said—it’s not always about principles, its how you use your position to face the bigger national challenge (my quote, as paraphrased).
Milam describes Zia’s political legacy as a mixed one. Among his most positive bequests to the nation was the reintroduction of the multiparty political system that had “withered under Mujib …. And Zia restored stability to Bangladesh when it appeared to be on the path towards catastrophic and chaotic failure”. “More than stability, he seems to have brought hope back to a beleaguered population, as disillusioned as he was by the near anarchy that obtained in the final months of Mujib’s democratic experiment”. But his political legacy involved an authoritarian system of almost personal rule. While this might be justified because of “his success in bringing the country back from the brink”, it was liable to misuse by less scrupulous politicians. Milam describes Zia as also being honest and trustworthy. He adds “Zia laid the basis for durable and robust democracy that must develop if Bangladesh is to continue its progress as a leader in social development among both the Third World and the Muslim world”.
A telling tribute to Ziaur Rahman comes in page 69 of the book: “It’s hard to imagine what would have happened to Bangladesh had Ziaur Rahman been assassinated in 1975 instead of 1981. A failed state on the model of Afghanistan or Liberia might well have resulted. Zia saved Bangladesh from that fate”.
Chapter 6 lists the destructive and destabilizing nature of confrontational politics practiced by the two major political parties when they alternated in government and in opposition between 1991 and 2006. Governance worsened with each successive government and corruption and sycophancy gripped almost every organ of the state. They both failed to live up to the people’s expectations.
But Bangladesh had a democracy to talk about and it was in transition. Besides, the social and economic indices were much better than countries in similar positions. There was very tangible success in the area of Primary and Secondary education and gender parity was achieved at the secondary level. Employment opportunities for women had overtaken even some developed countries.
In the context of Bangladeshi political leaders, Bill Milam in his book has implied that power, or more power, does not always help one to succeed in governing: people give you that power anyway when they repose their trust and faith in you. It’s how you reward that trust with conviction and through your efforts to reach out to them, to touch them and respond to their ethos that makes the difference between success and failure.
Politicians and political leaders, present and of the future, of all hue and political observers would be well advised to read, and more importantly study, Ambassador Bill Milam’s book. It’s instructive and yet not prescriptive. Importantly, it is candid. [ENDS]
The author of this piece is a decorated freedom fighter and former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador/High Commissioner of Bangladesh to Sri Lanka, Germany, Vietnam and the United States