June 2009

The recent exchange between Abdul Jalil, Awami League General Secretary, and Dr. Alaluddin Ahmed, Adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, had laid bare some of the key rifts currently plaguing our ruling party. The Awami League (AL) currently has about four-fifths of the seats in our parliament; they also won about 49% of the vote in the last election held in December 29, 2008. Extrapolating back from this result, if elections would have been held on January 22, 2007, AL would have still had a similar majority. However, what has changed in the past two years are the individuals who would have been the key actors in an AL government.

In any government formed after AL won 2007 elections, Abdul Jalil, as General Secretary of AL, the most popular AL leader from North Bengal, and a key mastermind of the anti-BNP government tactics, would have been one of the senior ministers. The behemoth LGRD ministry, traditionally reserved for the number-twos of the party in power, would have become his personal fiefdom. He would have added his name to the illustrious list of former LGRD kingpins such as Barrister Abdus Salam Talukdar, (now President) Zillur Rahman, and Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan, with a large budget, infrastructure spanning the length of Bangladesh, and a gargantuan patronage network, at his disposal.

The 2007 cabinet would also include heavyweights such as Tofael Ahmed, Abdur Razzaq, and Amir Hossain Amu, leaders with long decades of service to AL, serving in their second or third cabinet, experienced in the ways of the bureaucracy, and capable of implementing their own agenda. Sheikh Hasina would come close to, as close to as possible in our current personality-driven politics, being the primus inter pares, the first among equals in her council of ministers.

Instead, the current AL cabinet, much like the current Zimbabwe under-19 team, wears a forlorn look. Motia Chowdhury, who in those fiery days of her youth reputedly used to desire her wish to flay Sheikh Mujibur Rahman alive in no uncertain terms, is the senior minister from AL. Two of the five-most senior ministers are imports from General Ershad’s Jatiyo Party, another, Barrister Shafique Ahmed, is here in his capacity as the Prime Minister’s personal lawyer during the last two years. Both the Home Minister and the Foreign Minister are first-time MPs. Most of the other ministers and state ministers have never served in any ministry previously. The cabinet also contains, alongside several former Communist leaders, possibly Bangladesh’s first serving Communist cabinet minister, making it a matter of time before the we start hearing about the Awami League-Communist government.

Missing are Jalil, Tofael, Razzaq, Amu, Suranjit Sengupta, Dr. Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, Sheikh Selim, and the entire starting bench of AL leaders. When making this decision, Sheikh Hasina has also had to give up experience and government-savvy. As a result, the current cabinet’s newbies are still learning how to move files through their ministry’s bureaucracy, how to get project allocations for their desired projects, and how to keep DOs from dying in the bowels of their respective ministries.

As a counterweight, Hasina has hired six unelected advisers, with the rank of cabinet ministers, to shortcircuit the cabinet, report directly to her in the PMO, and keep the machinery running. As a result, this government is the most centralized administration ever to run our country. Most of the cabinet members do not have Hasina’s trust – when she had to go to Senakunjo to face down the distraught army officers, she only took Motia Chowdhury with her. The PM is having to do all the heavy-lifting by herself in quite a number of issues. While things go right, most of the cabinet will not mind going along this arrangement. But when things go wrong, as they did in February 25, PM will have to take on the blame solo. And she may find there are those within the party more than happy to point their fingers at her.

Jalil’s recent outburst, calling the current arrangement unconstitutional, is but the tip of the iceberg. The real strife between those six to eight individuals who would have been at the top of a 2007 AL cabinet, and the six to eight individuals who are at the top of the current cabinet, is just starting. Those who have been left out include those who were taken to the jail and tortured by the Caretaker Government after being identified as being personally loyal to Sheikh Hasina, and those who were used to try and oust Hasina from her party position. It will be interesting to see if they are able to make common cause, and how long it takes them to do so.

It is indeed ironic that the leader of a 230-plus member parliamentary party finds herself lonely in government. Hasina would do well to remember that strengh, at least in a democracy, lies in numbers. The alternative may not be to her liking.

On reading the special editorialwritten by Matiur Rahman, Prothom Alo editor, the day his masterMoeen U. Ahmed retired as Army Chief, a number of questions came up. Actually, what came up first was disgust at the incredible level of smugness that was on display as Matiur Rahman pretended that the change of government that took place on January 11, 2007 did not happen with his direct knowledge and collusion. But eventually, on a second and third reading, some questions did come up.

The intial point that struck me was the sheer disregard of journalistic ethos that Mr. Rahman puts on display here. If any of us bloggers had written this piece, our inboxes would be flooded by now with demands that we either back up what we wrote as facts or admit that they are baseless innuendo. I do not see why the standard should be any different for the editor of Bangladesh’s most widely-circulated Bangla newspaper. In his article, Matiur Rahman states:

  • After last year’s election, a powerful portion of the Army wanted Moeen’s tenure as Army Chief extended by another year.
  • Presumably the same part of the Army wanted Moeen to become either Defense Minister or the “Joint Chief of Staff.”
  • After the Pilkhana massacre, Army officers openly criticized Moeen, inside and outside the Army, for not being able to save the lives of his men.
  • The Government would still like to reward Moeen.
  • Diplomatic sources say that Moeen may be made the Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York.

Let us take these points one by one. After Moeen toppled the caretaker government in 2007 and promoted himself to General, he spent a great deal of time and energy putting his men in as many key army positions as he could, and sending army officers who refused to countenance his authority into forced retirement. Thus, it is probably not a surprise that Moeen still has a constituency left in the Army, even though, ideally, the entire Army should be his constituency.

That there were ever any suggestions of Moeen being made Defense Minister or Joint Chief of Staff is quiet sensational news. If Motiur Rahman knew about this previously but did not inform us, his readers, he has done us a great disservice. As far as I know, Bangladesh has never had a Defense Minister, with the Prime Minister not being able to trust anyone else (unwisely, in my opinion) with this portfolio. For a very brief period of time, Khandoqar Mushtaq’s government did set up a Combined Chief of Staff, but that was more to keep Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman, as Army Chief, from having any real power, than anything else. Moeen has already permanently distorted our defense establishment by promoting himself to General rank, giving nations around the world one more reason to titter at us behind our back. Appointing the same man to one of the posts described above would have been a momentous step; one we deserved to hear about ahead of time.

The Pilkhana massacre laid bare the full extent of the damage that Moeen had done to the very institution he was supposed to protect and safeguard: the Bangladesh Army. Barely two years after he had stormed into Bongobhaban, the Presidential Palace, and forced President Iajuddin Ahmed to retire as Chief Advisor, a democratic government barely two months old could scarcely trust him to again lead an operation in the heart of Dhaka. And so it was they fifty-plus of our officers were tortured and killed, while the government sat and dithered before, first allowing enough armour units to enter Dhaka, and then letting them approach Pilkhana. Moeen has undone the work of thousands of honest and dedicated officers who obeyed the constitutional dictate that our armed forces stay subservient to the civilian government, through his coup in 2007 and the torture he inflicted on a broad swathe of politicians from all across the political spectrum the next two years. Going forward, it will take years to mend the damage he has wrought.

Therefore, we do not see how Matiur Rahman can now claim that Army officers have criticized and blamed Moeen for the loss of lives in Pilkhana. Why was Matiur Rahman silent when the government instituted an Army-probe into this massacre under the same person who was blamed for letting it happen? How could such a probe have any credibility with members of our armed forces, let alone the general public?

Even after making these incredible allegations, Matiur Rahman then turns around and claims that even after the Pilkhana massacre, the government would like to still reward Moeen. The question begs to be asked, what is the government rewarding Moeen for? Providing the incompetent leadership that allowed so many of his men to be killed? Indirectly causing the mutiny – by green-lighting the BDR into Operation DalBhaat? Or, as Matiur Rahman hints near the end, because of the election held in 29 December, 2008? Do we really want to become a nation that remains in thrall to its Army Chief for allowing elections to go through?

And do we really want our United Nations representative to be a wannabe military strongman? Asif Ali Zardari and Pervez Musharraf made a far more explicit pact after the Pakistani election. But even Musharraf did not have the gumption of trying to claim diplomatic immunity and representing our country in the world stage.

Of course, if Moeen ever leaves Bangladesh, we can rest assured he will never return again. His underling Brig. Fazlul Bari had the right idea when he decided he liked America too much. One can confidently expect Moeen to follow suit; he has already made his liking for the balmy climate of Florida well-known. Perhaps, once they are united there, advance accommodations could be arranged for Gen. Masud as well.

Fighting the rearguard battle to justify his own support for the overthrow of the CTG in 2007, Matiur Rahman claims that the new regime had “massive support” from the people. Yet, in the very next sentence, he is forced to acknowledge that Awami League only supported this move initially, until the true nature of the regime that followed became clear and Sheikh Hasina was herself thrown into jail after she spoke out against military intervention, through DGFI, in politics. BNP, of course, never supported the regime. Then how does Matiur Rahman find broad support for a regime which is not supported by BNP and AL, which together represent about 260 of the 300 seats in both the current as well as the former parliament?

The job of a newspaper editor is different from that of a gossip columnist. It is really different from that of a sycophant. Unfortunately, Mr. Matiur Rahman seems unclear about both these distinctions. The activities of our last regime left behind enough tar to cover most of its proponents and supporters. With this piece, Matiur Rahman just slapped some more tar firmly on his face.