First, let me make the statement that will ensure that I am persona non grata in Bangladesh:
"The latest in a long line of despots, General Moeen U Ahmed, has now taken effective control of Bangladesh. By doing so, this latest South Asian megalomaniac has substituted his judgment for the judgment of the people. He says he does not believe in "elective democracy". He has struck the death knell to an experiment in democracy that began over 35 years ago. The military, which had taken power once before in 1975, had been unceremoniously chased back into the barracks in 1991. But, now, with tacit American and Western support they have overthrown the world’s fifth largest democracy, however imperfect it was. The "elite" of Bangladesh, the leeches that have fed off the millions of impoverished people of the land that I love, have welcomed this military takedown of a secular Muslim majority nation. The leader of the "war on terror" never raised an eyebrow as real terror entered through the front door in Bangladesh."
There you have it. I suspect I will not visit Bangladesh any time soon after the above statement – almost certainly not until the military is chased back into the barracks and democracy returns there.
My opinion, I fear, is a minority opinion in Bangladesh, at least among the "elite" (or "civil society" as they are called in Bangladesh) who run the country’s economy. It is unclear what the majority of the people, those living in poverty think – no one has ever bothered to ask them. For background on how this slow-motion military coup in Bangladesh was orchestrated, read my posts from January here and here. At the time, when the army started its crackdown on "corruption", I wrote the following:
A State of Emergency has been declared in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has, by a quirk in its Constitution, been legally transformed into a dictatorship. A democracy of 125 million people is now at the mercy of a handful of unelected rulers and the military.
Bangladesh has given up a lot of essential liberty for a little bit of temporary security – it remains to be seen whether it deserves or will get either.
It remains to be seen whether democracy will return to Bangladesh any time soon. The Caretaker Government has already started to go well beyond its constitutional mandate. It currently has public support because the people are looking for solutions to the rampant corruption that has plagued the country. However, unelected governments have a logic of their own – and fairly quickly such governments’ perception of the public good becomes skewed.
Already a crackdown on "criminals and other disruptive elements" has started…
I wonder how long before the definition of "disruptive elements" is broadened. Forgive me if I am wary of crackdowns by the military – I still recall the Pakistani army’s crackdown on "miscreants" on March 25, 1971.
History will teach us nothing.
Today the New York Times published an editorial highlighting the crisis in Bangladesh:
Promoting democracy, especially in Islamic countries, is supposed to be a major goal of President Bush’s foreign policy. But his administration has raised little protest as Bangladesh — until January the world’s fifth most populous democracy — has been transformed into its second most populous military dictatorship.
Washington is being dangerously shortsighted. Democracy can be messy, and in Bangladesh it was extraordinarily so. But military rule offers no answers to the grievances that fuel Islamic radicalism, as can be seen from nearby Pakistan (the world’s most populous military dictatorship). By stifling authentically popular mainstream parties and their leaders, military regimes often magnify the political influence of religious extremists.
This year’s democratic eclipse in Bangladesh did not follow the classic script for a military coup. A civilian caretaker has been nominally in charge since January, after troubled national elections were indefinitely postponed. Meanwhile, the generals consolidated power behind the scenes and began harassing and jailing many of the country’s top civilian political leaders.
Last week, Sheik Hasina Wazed — who served as prime minister from 1996 through 2001 — and top leaders of her 14-party alliance were charged with murder in connection with violent pre-election protests. Her longtime rival, Khaleda Zia, who both preceded and followed her in office, is now under virtual house arrest. More than 150 other senior politicians have been detained on corruption charges and the timetable for new elections keeps receding. [Emphasis added by me.]
The New York Times makes a singularly important point: that military regimes magnify the political influence of religious extremists. I would go a step further. I would say that military regimes in Islamic countries in fact collude with, and enable, religious extremists to consolidate power. Military regimes and Islamists are natural allies – they both are undemocratic and believe in rule by force. There is plenty of evidence that such collusion is not only a theoretical possibility, but has in fact been the case in recent history. It was after all, the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, who, in 1979, instituted Sharia law in Pakistan. In Bangladesh, after the military takeover in 1975, the secular country was briefly called the "Islamic Republic of Bangladesh". It was the military in Bangladesh that allowed exiled Islamists to return to Bangladesh in 1978. Since then, the Islamists have steadily grown in strength and have worked to undermine the secular democracy in Bangladesh.
General Moeen Ahmed declared in a speech on April 2nd that he did not want "elective democracy" in Bangladesh, instead:
Bangladesh will have to construct its own brand of democracy recognizing its social, historical and cultural conditions with religion being one of several components of its national identity.
Bangladesh was formed as a secular state in direct response to the oppression of a country that wanted to rule on the basis of religious national identity, namely Islamic rule. The General wants to now reinstitute that "religious national identity" that led to the persecution of millions of Hindus and the slaughter of 3 million Bengalis. It should not be surprising to anyone that the General’s words echo those of the 1975 coup leaders in Bangladesh – a slide into Islamist rule is a characteristic of these military megalomaniacs.
Many will argue, in reading the preceding, that this military takeover is different from the previous one of 1975 – that the situation on the ground (the rampant corruption) was so bad that this step, though undemocratic, was essential to restore faith in governance. That is the "historical necessity" argument. It is a favorite one of military dictators, it was employed by Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan and by the 1975 coup leaders of Bangladesh (click here to read the August 16 1975 editorial from the Bangladesh Observer claiming the coup was a "historical necessity" ). It is an argument often used by megalomaniacs who want to substitute their judgment for the judgment of the people.
Others may still argue that this military regime, as announced by the figurehead civilian front man, in Bangladesh has promised elections in 18 months. To them, I say, the promise of elections is a standard item from the military coup playbook. To wit, read the promise of elections from a similar speech given by the military backed figurehead civilian president of Bangladesh on October 3, 1975 – that pledge resulted in the military relinquishing power 16 years later.
Finally, it is my contention that the current corruption of the political culture in Bangladesh is in large part a legacy of the military takeover of Bangladesh in 1975. A military takeover, far from "fixing" a democracy, corrupts it further. It does so by setting a precedent that the rule of law can be subverted in service of the "national interest". This license to ignore the rule of law is the essential ingredient of any form of government corruption. When the military decides to "fix" things, it corrupts the system further. It sets a precedent that laws can and should be ignored when there is a "historical necessity". That is an invitation, not only to corruption, but to autocratic and dictatorial rule.
So, while "civil society" in Bangladesh cheers this military takeover, and while President Bush is busy ignoring a real threat to stability in the 8th most populous country in the world, democracy and human rights collapse in the world’s 5th most populous democracy.
UPDATE (4/15/2007 11:00 PM):