Coups can’t get rid of corrupt politicians

A generally ineffective way to cleanse the political system

Bangladesh is to have general elections on December 18th, almost two years after the army seized power amid a political crisis. According to The Economist:

The front-runners in the race to succeed a period of muddled rule by soldiers, spooks and technocrats are the heads of two feuding dynasties whose careers the army tried and failed to end: the former prime ministers Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)…

Even so, the view of the army, Bangladesh’s foreign aid donors and its voters is now that the “two begums” constitute the only offer on the table. The army tried to send them into exile, hoping new political parties would emerge; then it jailed them and their coteries on charges of corruption. In the end, they were freed on bail. It proved impossible both to hold them to account and to hold elections. [The Economist]

As The Acorn asked after the coup—just where did they think the new leaders would come from?

A naval standoff between Bangladesh and Burma

A new territorial dispute in the Bay of Bengal

The Burmese navy has withdrawn two of its warships from an area in the Bay of Bengal 50 nautical miles south-west of Bangladesh’s St Martin’s Island. Bangladesh is to withdraw its four ships after the intruding commercial gas exploration ships leave the scene. (via Information Dissemination)

It appears that the standoff ended without shots being fired. But not before a war of words.

Bangladesh’s foreign minister Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury said he had warned Myanmar’s envoy to Dhaka that “all steps would be taken to protect the sovereignty and territory of Bangladesh.” [AFP]

A senior official from Myanmar’s military government said they were open to talks, but insisted that oil and gas companies were operating inside their territory and far away from the disputed sea boundary. “We will try to solve this peacefully, but we are also ready to protect our country if needed … we will not tolerate being insulted, although we do want good will. We will continue with exploration,” [AFP]

Pragati May 2008: Towards liberal nationalism

Issue 14 - Apr 2008

Issue Contents

PERSPECTIVE

Liberals, culture and nationalism Ravikiran S Rao
An opportunity exists for a new politics

Changing the broken wheel Raj Cherubal
The secular-right must champion economic freedom

Towards “that heaven of freedom” Gautam Bastian
A free nation of free citizens

Out of court Rohit Pradhan, Shashi Shekhar & Mukul Asher
Carry on the battle, but respect the court’s verdict

FILTER

India as a rising great power; climate change and national security; India-Iran relations; to the brink; and trade across the Line of Control

IN DEPTH

The new currency of power Nitin Pai & Aruna Urs
A discussion on strategic affairs with K Subrahmanyam

ROUNDUP

Use the Tibet card Zorawar Daulet Singh
To settle the India-China dispute

Consensus must endure Dinesh Wagle
Maoists have the upper hand in the construction of the republic

Bottom-up dynamics Sushant K Singh
What attracts Africa to India and how it can be strengthened

Pressed by inflation Gulzar Natarajan
Easing supply bottlenecks is the right way to go

BOOKS

Memories of 1971 Amardeep Singh
A review of Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age

Read excerpts | Download

Realism, tragedy and Sri Lanka

Pity, not serendipity

The Sri Lankan government seeks military assistance in order to defeat the LTTE. Since India is unwilling to arm the Sri Lankan army, it argues that it is only fair that it should look elsewhere. Pakistan is a willing supplier: “it’s main military supplies to Sri Lanka include mortar ammunition, radio sets, hand grenades, naval ammunition and tanks.” It supplied US$50 million worth of arms to the Sri Lankan army last year. It’s about to supply at least another US$25 million worth of mortar ammunition and hand grenades. Pakistan can argue, with reason, that it is fair that it supports a fellow South Asian government in its war against a terrorist organisation.

It’s all realism. That’s precisely why T S Gopi Rethinaraj argues in the April 2008 issue of Pragati that in the event of the LTTE’s military defeat, it is quite likely that the Sri Lankan government will have little reason to be favourably disposed towards India’s interests. This argument can’t entirely be countered by suggesting that this eventuality can be avoided if India were to support the Sri Lankan government in the first place. There is much logic in Dr Rethinaraj’s contention that the Sri Lankan government’s interests will depend on the end state, not the process of getting there. Like in the case of Bangladesh’s policy towards India, for instance. To prevent an unfavourable change in the balance of power in the immediate Indian Ocean region, he goes on to call for a subtle shift in India’s position towards the LTTE.

There is a another option: if the governments of India and Sri Lanka were to agree upon a broad security relationship that would secure India’s interests as part of a broader settlement of the ethnic civil war along federal lines. That would require a much more muscular approach from New Delhi—which, in turn requires a particular domestic political equation at the Centre and in Tamil Nadu—as well as a much more responsive approach from Sri Lanka. It’s within the realm of the possible, but don’t keep your fingers crossed.

In the meantime, watch (in despair) how a realism plays out in the region.

Remembering the East Pakistan Genocide

Truth and reconciliation elude the victims of the 1971 mass murders

Thirty eight years ago this day, the Pakistani army’s tanks moved in to Dacca (now Dhaka), the capital of East Pakistan, as part of the General Yahya Khan-led junta’s plan to bring the autonomy-seeking province to heel. “We have to sort them out” said Colonel Naim of the Pakistani army’s 9th division, “to restore the land to the people, and the people to their Faith”. Operation Searchlight officially got underway on March 25th 1971, although in his memoirs, Major General Sujan Singh Uban writes that the Pakistani army had begun repressive measures a few days earlier.

Thus began the genocide.

It was perhaps among the few in recent decades that did not come as a surprise, not least to the victims. It accompanied the birth of a new nation leaving horrible birthmarks that disfigure Bangladeshi society to this day. Bangladesh in 1971 was the site of multiple conflicts: a civil war between the the two wings of Pakistan, communal violence between Bengalis and non-Bengalis, a genocide, an guerrilla war, a conventional war and a counter-genocide. In each of these conflicts perpetrators, victims and onlookers often exchanged roles. Here is my essay (PDF, 200kb) that examines the causes, course and results of one sub-conflict—the genocide against Bengalis by the West Pakistani army—and attempts to explain it through a Realist perspective.

In A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power indicts the realist underpinnings of US foreign policy for its indirect complicity or reluctance to intervene in several 20th century genocides—including those in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia.

While that may indeed be the case, the events in East Pakistan between 1970, when Bhola struck, to 1974, when India, Pakistan and Bangladesh arrived at a tripartite agreement to close outstanding issues, present an interesting case of how realpolitik considerations of the states involved explain why genocide was carried out with impunity, why it was permitted by international players, why it was halted by the Indian intervention and why the perpetrators were never punished. It is not a normative discussion to study how genocides may be prevented, but rather an attempt to explain the role of Realist foreign policies of states during the episode. (The essay contains a small section disagreeing with Sarmila Bose’s recent revisionist study that concludes that the term genocide was a product of exaggeration.).

Download the essay here

From the archives: Archer Kent Blood, RIP; Who claimed Bangladeshi independence?; Indira called Nixon a…?; Bangladesh celebrates victory day; Children of a failed theory; Foreign Policy Naifs (Barbara Crossette edition)

Weekday Squib: Goulash is not Vindaloo!

Britain’s curry crisis

You are in Britain. You want to try the local cuisine. The vindaloo tastes like…goulash. You feel cheated. And demand to see the chef. He steps out of the kitchen, and speaks…Hungarian.

The ‘BBC’ got it wrong. This is not a curry crisis. It’s an evil EU conspiracy to reverse the course of British culinary history.

…restrictions on lower-skilled workers from outside the EU are causing a labour shortage so severe it could cause “irreparable damage” to the curry industry….attempts to get eastern Europeans to work in curry restaurants have failed because they do not have the “cultural sensitivity” required. [‘BBC’]

Bangladesh must rescue Britain from Brussels.

Inflation and the junta

The regime in Dhaka “tilts at windmills”

The dictatorships in the subcontinent have had to contend with public unrest due to the global rise in food prices. They’ve done it in characteristic style. The Burmese generals cracked down hard on protesters. The Pakistanis sent troops to warehouses and flour mills, acting rather late in the day. The Bangladeshi regime, meanwhile, is caught between going the repressive way and the costs of being bracketed with the ill-reputed juntas of the region.

Mashuqur Rahman writes that they blamed ‘a foreign body’ for stoking labour unrest, arrested Mehedi Hasan, a trade unionist, and forced him to confess. Confess what? Well, that he did his usual job of collecting information of collecting information about worker’s problems and reporting it to Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), which “represents 178 American colleges and universities who buy garments from brands with factories in countries like Bangladesh. WRC defends the rights of garment workers against abuse. Its reports hold the garment factories’ feet to the fire”.

Meanwhile food prices are rising, and calls for subsidies are becoming louder. Bangladesh’s generals know that they need international assistance in order to make food available and affordable. So it is not surprising that they decided to release Mr Hasan.

Where martial law is yet to be lifted

Bangladesh has remained under military rule for a year now

It has been a year since the Bangladeshi army staged a quiet coup, installed a regime of civilian ‘advisors’ and imposed an emergency. According to Freedom House, over the last year, Bangladesh’s “political rights rating declined…due to a military-backed replacement of the caretaker government in January and suspension of planned elections, as well as the imposition of a state of emergency under which political activity, freedom of assembly, and media freedom were curtailed”.

Photo: Flickr-Anonymous Photographer

During this one year, the military junta has attempted to gain domestic legitimacy by a very visible crackdown on political corruption. It has managed to avoid international scrutiny not only by keeping a low profile, but has gained from the fact that the world’s attention is turned towards Pakistan, Burma, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Yet military rule is unlikely to provide Bangladesh with a sound basis to address its numerous internal problems, and by extension, problems that affect India. The longer Bangladesh is under military rule, the greater the danger that problems will surface only after they have reached crisis levels.

The fact that one whole year after seizing power the generals are nowhere near announcing a timetable for a restoration of democracy proves that now is as good a time as any. We all wish we had better politicians, but the truth is that Bangladesh, like any other country, must do with the leaders and political parties it has got.

It is time for the generals to beat the retreat.