Spiraling from bad to worse, the Bangladesh situation today is a virtual replay of less than a decade ago. Khaleda Zia being in power in 2006, this time the streets are targetting Haseena Wajed in reverse. With Musharraf trying to stay on forever in Pakistan and widespread speculation about the Army in Dhaka similarly stepping in, I had a word of caution for the Bangladesh military in my article of Nov 9, 2006 entitled “Whither Bangladesh?”, “Notwithstanding a temptation ‘to set things right’, it could well go all wrong. Numerous failures in governance have their origins in martial laws. Pakistan and Bangladesh are bad examples of the military coming in for short time, then staying forever till destiny has it otherwise, of limitless uninhibited ambition destroying the very fabric of society. The military-rule route should be used only for the shortest possible time if anarchy is imminent.”
On Dec 24, 2006, the Bangladesh Army Chief Gen Moeen Ahmed and his wife were my gracious dinner hosts in the Army-run Radisson Hotel. Moeen was commissioned in 1975 in 2 E Bengal, the battalion my father raised on Feb 7, 1949 in Dhaka and later commanded. Based on the dinner conversation, I quoted the Bangladesh COAS (almost) verbatim in “Bangladesh, Democracy in Crisis” of Dec 28, 2006, “having sleepless nights with both serving and retired persons as well as many in the political and business community, etc., urging the army to fill the ‘void’, I am determined that the army will not violate its oath, staying in a subservient role to civilian authority as mandated constitutionally. Having no business running the government, the Army will support civilian authority on the basis of a fair equitable vote”, unquote. For someone who strongly believes that the army has no role whatsoever in politics and governance, this was beautiful music.
Moeen smilingly reminded me about my own advice that the Army should only step in “if anarchy is imminent.” Ten days thereafter with absolute anarchy staring them in the face the Army installed a technocrat government. Staying away from day-to-day governance unlike in Musharraf-run Pakistan, Moeen’s “Bangladesh Model” became a martial law by another name.
I sent Moeen extracts from my June 29, 1995 article “Why Martial Laws Fail?”, “Martial Laws fail because those initiating extra-Constitutional rule ride into town on tanks with the lofty Aim of saving the country, that platonic national purpose makes them credible to the people but they soon adjust their Aim to more material (and less patriotic) reasons of self-perpetuation. Martial Laws fail because lip-service is given to self-accountability, those misusing their draconian powers must face similar summary justice as they are prescribing for others. As trustees of the people’s confidence, they cannot become beneficiaries of the Martial Law they have imposed. Martial Laws fail because the Armed Forces, fail to do their homework properly about the working of the State or the individuals who run it, involving themselves in mundane, routine duties. Surrounded by sycophants, mostly holdovers from previous governments, stamping out dissent and without accountability, Martial Law Regimes fail because they become susceptible to flattery and manipulation, attracting adventurers (and adventuresses) like bees to honey.” unquote. One did not have to be clairvoyant to write Musharraf’s future career trajectory as a military dictator four years before he actually became one in 1999.
A year into “the Bangladesh Model” my “Cliffhanger in Bangladesh” in 2008 recorded, “While all the aims of the army intervention have not been achieved, there is significant success. In a credible public opinion poll an overwhelming majority (88%) felt the Army’s role supporting the Caretaker Government was appropriate. Leading the drive against corruption, the Army set up the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). The elections are the easy part, even though wielding power from behind the scenes it will be difficult for the Army to let go. What if the confrontation of the two Begums continues? For Moeen and his colleagues, advice from an elder. Do not forget Chauswitz’s first principle of war (and peace), “Selection and Maintenance of Aim.” You have done a magnificent job in adverse circumstances, don’t botch it up now. Let go and do it soon!” Moeen real problems unfortunately stemmed from some of his colleagues and siblings going berserk (resembling some of Musharraf’s generals) making money howsoever they could. The irony was that the serving general leading the fight against corruption was very corrupt person (resembling two of Musharraf’s holier-than-thou NAB Chairmen), and is today one of the richest men in Bangladesh. The sincerest of intentions cannot avoid the trappings of power becoming a heady aphrodysiac, personal ambition and greed find any number of reasons for remaining in power. Once into governance the Army finds it difficult to disengage!
Moeen started to compromise on accountability to dabble in politics, very much like Musharraf did. All the gains were lost as Bangladesh went back to square one. To his credit Moeen did hold free and fair elections and with pressure from within the Army and in the streets, he let go. Without accountability being completed the same corrupt people got into power, the faces changing from the BNP to the AL. Pakistan fared even worse, desperate to prolong his own rule “Pakistan First” Musharraf annunciated the obnoxious National Reconciliation Order (NRO), the blackest law in the entire corruption history of Pakistan (and perhaps the world), legalizing looters to come back and loot the country all over again. And they have done so with a sustained vengeance. What stops the govt from publishing the list of Pakistanis holding US$ 850 million in accounts with HSBC, Switzerland?
The situation existing in both countries today is because the Army deviated from its mission statement because of personal greed and ambition. Reputedly a professional soldier, can Gen IK Bhuyian, COAS Bangladesh Army since June 2012, stay aloof from the looming anarchy when it becomes a moral obligation to become the “saviors” of the State? Other than a full-blown anarchy (or one imminent), this should be avoided. With the professionalism of the Bangladesh Army tested, no bets on what the form of “civilian authority” will be!
Pakistan is coincidently facing a similar dilemma but compounded by multiple crisis, terrorism’s existential threat to the nation is aggravated by mis-governance and corruption. The purists consider it “Constitutionally” correct for those elected on a dubious and defective electoral process to loot the country but they consider it “Constitutionally” incorrect for those who can stop them from doing so.
The month of March is known for change, the Bangladesh model again? Starting with Bangladesh?
The writer is a leading defense and political analyst of Pakistan. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org