General Labyrinth

The Generals In Their Labyrinth
by Naeem Mohaiemen
[originally published in DAILY STAR, Sep 28 '06]

"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 brusqueness.

"General Ershad."

Ershad? Who the hell was 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 (Chief Martial Law Administrator) 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 reputation.

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 endless.

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 may 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?


Anonymous said...


Very well written.


Anthony said...

Very well written. While everyone is, quite rightly, talking about how events might play out today, you're taking the long-term view, which is great.

I'd add couple of things: one leads to a grim outlook, the other provides hope.

Pessimism first. It is a cliche among us Bangladeshis that the our political instability is due to the two ladies. While this was true in the 1990s, the current situation is not so simple. The current political stand off is a result of hardliners seizing BNP leadership under Tareque Rahman. Anyone knowledgable in Dhaka would tell you that for most of the term of the last government, Tareque yielded a de facto control over the government machinery. Now, he could have assumed BNP leadership through much more democratic ways. And he could easily moved beyond the political legacy of the 1970s - after all, generation-wise, he is closer to us who were born in the 1970s than those who participated in the events of the 1970s. That he chose to take essentially undemocratic route to power and that he has identified with hardliners in BNP paint a pessimistic picture about the ability of the post-71 generation to make a new political beginning.

And now for optimism, which is hard at the moment. But suppose the impasse is resolved and a genuine election is held. It is quite clear that in such an election, there will be some kind of alliance between AL and LDP. If this alliance survives the election, and particularly if this alliance wins, then that would lead to an end to the division caused by the legacy of the 1970s. LDP is claiming that it is the true heir to Zia-ur-Rahman's legacy. By accepting LDP as a partner, AL implicitly if not explicitly accepts Zia's legitimate place in Bangladesh's history. On the other hand, LDP seems to be focussing on Zia's image as an honest president rather than glorifying his role in the freedom movement and denigrating Mujib.

Finally, I don't think the Islamists are a potent third force in Bangladesh. I think there is a genuine threat of violence from Islamists. There are those who are affected by the events in Iraq or other places. There are also radicalised youths among the diaspora in the UK and elsewhere. But I think the biggest source of Islamist violence has been from splinter groups from Jamat. These splinter groups emerged because they think Jamat has been corrupted by mainstream politics. This is like the Indian Naxalites in the late 1960s, who broke away from the mainstream of the Communist Party because the party became too bourgeoisie! Like the Naxalites, today's Islamists lack broader popular support or international sponsors to make a serious bid for power.

I guess that leaves the Army as the potent 3rd force. I am amazed to see so many young and old people suggesting that an army take over might be better. That I think is the biggest source of pessimism.

Anonymous said...

“3RD FORCE”…….Another theory......
Around six months back (I don’t remember the date) there was news in the newspapers about an international conspiracy disclosed by one eminent person. That the CTG would fail to fulfill the neutral demands of Awami League - and it would end its tenure with no elections. Some of the internaional bodies would step in to patronise formation of an “interim government” headed by an internationally well known person (Mr X), supported and encouraged by Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina. Situation favourable to BNP would change to situation favourable to Awami League. Then elections would be held. With Awami League in the power Mr. X would be the President of the country.
One Mr. Gautam from India wrote an article in the online edition of The Japan Times on 19th November about situations in Bangladesh. He explained that Islamic fundamentalists and militants are trying to grab power in Bangladesh and Sheikh Hasina’s movement is opposing. This may be a part of a larger propaganda mission targetted to create international consensus in favour of postponing the election due in January.