Naeem — Generals In Their Labyrinth

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Last Sunday, the Bangladesh interim President called the army into
the streets to stop “anarchy.” Here we go again, many of us thought.
Return of the Khakis. But within hours, a mysterious new circular
emerged that contradicted the President’s order. The army stayed in
the barracks. For now.
15 years after emerging from a military junta, Bangladesh’s democracy
is in very fragile shape. After 5 years of disastrous rule by a
rightist-islamist (BNP-Jamaat) coalition, we face the 2007 elections
in an apocalyptic mood. Both the government and the opposition refuse
to give an inch. The opposition’s demands include resignation of the
Chief Election Commissioner, of senior bureaucrats, and BNP
loyalists––none of whom can be trusted to enforce the already-
controversial voter list (which is missing large chunks of the
electorate, including minority voters).
Strikes, nihilistic and continuous, have gripped the country. The
opposition Awami League bills this as the showdown between the
Islamists and Secularists. Others see it as a power struggle between
the “Prince” (all-powerful Tarique Rahman, son of the current PM
Khaleda Zia) and the “masses” (a stand-in for each party’s
ambitions). The US embassy, the Tuesday Club diplomatic core, World
Bank, etc, once so powerful in Bangladesh’s internal affairs, sit on
the sidelines and bleat platitudes. Allergy to outside interference
is reflected in outgoing Finance Minister Saifur Rahman’s scolding of
the diplomats: mind your own knitting. With a large chunk of foreign
revenue now coming from Bangladeshi immigrants scattered throughout
the world, the threat of foreign aid doesn’t have the same clout any
The possibility of elections in January seem very faint. But what
then? How long will this continue, and who will step in to fill the
gap? The army? The Islamists? Someone else?
A group of us, colleagues, allies, friends, all from what is
melodramatically called “post-71 generation” have been writing op-eds
on these subjects for last few months. Below is a short piece I wrote
in September, warning of the possibility of a military coup.
The Generals In Their Labyrinth
by Naeem Mohaiemen
“The #1 hot-selling item is democracy, nothing else comes close. Not
religion, love, lust, hamburger, fish and chips, coca cola, beer, or
Princess Diana.”
[Humayun Azad, Rajnithibidgon, Agami Press, 1998]
One quiet morning in 1982, I headed to school as usual. My father
used to give me a “lift” on his way to work. A military doctor, he
had a long trek to CMH and would leave at the pagan hour of 6 am. I
staggered out with him, unfinished homework bulging in my backpack.
Suddenly my aunt came running out.
“Bablu bhai, don’t go near Cantonment! They just announced on the
radio, there’s been a coup!”
“Coup? Abar ke coup korlo?” my father barked with his usual
“General Ershad.”
Ershad? The only General I knew well was retired Osmani on the
election trail. Ey cheese kothheke elo? I thought, still sleepy.
And in the next moment, a secret thrill as the larger significance
sank in.
No school today!
Over the next ten years, we got to know that cheese very well.
Nothun Bangladesh Gorbo Mora led to Beshi Kore Aloo Khan, golf
tournaments, poetry festivals, state religion, university closed sine
die, Mishuk rickshas, street urchins renamed Pothokoli, KAFCO
corruption, Atroshi’s Pir as royal guru, Nur Hossain’s dead body, and
much more. It was a long bumpy ride, capped by Qamrul Hasan’s
deathbed drawing.
After a decade in the wilderness, Ershad is back. Dhaka streets carry
this bold JP slogan:
Je Bole Shoirachar/Thar Mookhe Jootha Mar
(He Who Calls Us Dictator/Kick Him In The Face)
Not just the return of the king, today’s political earthquakes could
set the stage for an Ershad sequel, whether from the army or
elsewhere. During Sattar’s brief tenure, students set a bus on fire
over a fare dispute. Compared to what we have seen recently, it was a
zero level conflict. But even that was enough for a journalist to
say, “This bura mia, Sattar, can’t control the country!” Sure enough,
a few days later, along came Ershad. From the journalist’s mouth to
somebody’s ears
When an army intervenes to stop chaos, everyone is initially happy.
Even diehard nationalists I interviewed for a film talked about the
trains “running on time” under Ayub. The idea of the benevolent
dictator has tremendous appeal, in spite of counter-examples that
include Idi Amin, Augusto Pinochet, Ziaul Haq, Than Shwe, Jorge
Videla, Manual Noriega, and Jose Efrain Rios Montt.
An industrialist friend recently wrote to me, “Ar Bhalo Lage Na. How
do you run a business with hartal? Tomorrow if the military comes, I
won’t protest!” Talking to a relative, I heard another dangerously
familiar sentiment, “Konta Chere Konta Dhorbo? Both parties seem
equally hopeless.”
When this nihilistic mindset sets in, a third force starts looking
tempting. Perhaps they will even start with genuine intentions. It
always starts that way. Our histories are cluttered with liberators
who talked about desh ke bachathe ar kono upai chilo na (I had no
other choice, to save the country). And then the rot sets in. Did I
say I would return power to civilians in a year? CMLA means Cancel
My Last Announcement.
This is not to say that the army is bubbling with intrigue or waiting
to take power. Today’s army appears to be more professional than in
the past. Pundits say that their role in UN Peacekeeping has become a
safety valve. It allows soldiers mobility and opportunities. It is
also a reason that today’s army cares about maintaining international
Anyway, the army is no longer the only third force. I’m also worried
about radical Islamist groups. Do we really know who funds them, who
they owe allegiance to, and what their future plans are? When death
sentences are passed quickly on JMB men, not many voices protest. The
bearded militant is an unpopular figure, who would want to defend his
rights? But these “express” courts will carry out pre-election
executions and destroy any chance of finding the real paymasters.
From Khalid Musharraf to Taher to Manzur — our history is littered
with dead men who didn’t tell the full story.
Waves of protests in Thailand ended in Thaksin’s ouster. Mexico has
been in a post-election gridlock, as Obrador threatens a “parallel
government.” Both those countries have more stable infrastructure
than us. The rhetoric being used by our government and opposition is
also far more poisonous than anything seen over there. Total
breakdown after our election seems eminently possible. How difficult
would it be for a third force to step in – whether Islamists, or
Army, or something else?
What then? Another decade of struggle to regain democracy? It’s
2006 not 1982. Bangladesh can no longer afford these “growing pains”.
By the time we extract ourselves, the world will have moved on,
leaving us far behind. An economy isolated from the world will be
very hard to rebuild.
Dhaka cha circles say America / Europe “won’t allow” a third force.
Besides the objective fact of US support for a Pakistani dictator,
there are other factors at play. Two decades ago, a military regime
in Bangladesh was of concern to the world because there were fewer
crises jockeying for global attention. Now there are lethal new
conflicts in Sudan, Somalia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, the list is
There are also positive distractions, taking attention away from
Bangladesh. The BRICs (Brazilian bombshells, Russian oligarchs, India
shining, China rising) now dominate world trade, and developing
economies are 50% of world GDP (in purchasing power parity). The
market arrival of Soviet bloc nations (Latvia and Estonia are now
right after Bangladesh on shirt labels at H&M stores), rapid
expansion of EU (the apocryphal Polish worker now a symbol for
massive internal migration), and warp-speed globalization (tiny
Uruguay partnering with Tata to create one of Latin America’s largest
outsourcing operations) beats even the flat-earth predictions.
Until we grow into Goldman Sachs’ prediction of N-11, power blocs
won’t pay much attention. Whether there is election gridlock, virtual
civil war, military crackdown, or islamist upsurge, none of the usual
safety mechanisms of global attention will come to our aid.
After a recent government-opposition showdown, a colleague wrote in
an e-mail:
“Here’s a pessimistic scenario: twenty years from now, Bangla
expatriate elites will roam western capitals like the Palestinians,
Tibetans and pre-79 Iranians, a combination of high spending elites
and idealistic intellectuals. They will not have a homeland to return
to, but will have expensive maps and photos on their walls. They will
look back with bittersweet nostalgia to the days when Mujib vs. Zia
actually seemed like a real debate.”
When Cassandras warn of third forces, they name Islamists, Army,
India or Pakistan. But there may be others, which we cannot even
predict or imagine. If the unthinkable came to pass, democracy would
be back in cold storage. Do our political Cain and Abel know that
they could be sitting on the outside, looking in, for decades to come?_______________________________________________
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