Friday, July 24, 2009

NAM Summit: New hopes

THE two-day long 15th NAM Summit ended successfully at the Egyptian Red Sea resort Sharm-el-Sheikh on July 16th with a 100-page Declaration. It gave new hope that a movement and an organization that was the product of the Cold War and was expected to die a natural death with the end of that war could revive once more. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon articulated that hope when he told delegates at the inaugural session "It is abundantly clear that no country - regardless of size or resources - can solve problems alone ...that raises the stakes and the space for the Non-Aligned Movement to shape a better world."

The bipolar world under which the two super powers had divided the world into armed camps created the need for a separate forum for a large number of developing nations that emerged as a result of de-colonization after the Second World War to carve their own destiny according to their own vision. Visionaries like Nehru of India, Tito of Yugoslavia and Soekarno of Indonesia, Nasser of Egypt and Nkrumah of Ghana were the leaders whose initiative historically called “the initiative of five” led to the creation of NAM. The term non-alignment was coined by Nehru in a speech in 1954 incorporating the five principles called “panchasheel” to guide China-India relations. When the first NAM Summit was held in 1961, the "panchasheel" became the five pillars of NAM.

These pillars were mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; mutual non-aggression; mutual non-interference in domestic affairs; equality and mutual benefit; and peaceful co-existence. In 1970 Lusaka NAM Summit, peaceful resolution of disputes and opposition to military pacts were added as additional principles to which later opposition to allowing foreign military bases was included.

When the Cold War ended, everyone was counting days for NAM to fold as the NAM principles lost a lot of relevance. It did not; nor did it show much signs of life either. The world was expecting that the tense international situation would dissipate with the end of the cold war rivalry between the USA and USSR and their followers and peace and development would become sustainable features of world politics in a unipolar world. Concepts like globalization created additional optimism about the positive shape of things to come. Unfortunately world politics became more conflict ridden because the bipolar world, while threatening something ominous where even nuclear conflict was possible, kept disagreements among nations from breaking into uncontrollable conflicts and wars by balancing such disagreements. With early signs of the end of the Cold War, we saw the first Gulf War and then emergence of terrorism as a global phenomenon. With the beginning of the new millennium came the 9/11 terrorist act. The US took full advantage of its super power status in a unipolar world in pursuing the perpetrators of 9/11 and their supporters by declaring “war on terror” and attacking Afghanistan in pursuit of Al Qaeda that USA held guilty for the 9/11 terrorist act. The USA then invaded Iraq, where there was neither Al Qaeda nor terrorists, despite opposition at the UN and worldwide.

Globalization, that was supposed to make the world a global village, has also not worked for a more peaceful world as the developing nations had expected. Inequalities and injustice in the world economic order increased against the developing nations making it more difficult for them to break through the vicious circle of poverty.

The emergence of President Obama has brought some rationality back in world politics but with many lessons learnt. Although threats of colonialism and imperialism that had motivated the developing nations to join the NAM have receded or gone away, the new dangers from globalization and neo-con administration in USA during the Bush era have brought into play greater and graver challenges. These new challenges have created a new need for the developing nations for a forum to articulate their grievances in world politics and economics. In other words, these challenges have created the stakes and the space for a new role and space for NAM to which the UN Secretary General has pointed.

The Sharm-el-Sheikh NAM Summit has underscored the desire of the member countries to create that role and space for NAM and make it the main forum to represent the developing countries in all multilateral fora, specially the UN. The Declaration has thus articulated the issues of common interest of the member states in order to re-invent the organization in a world different from what it was when NAM was launched but one where they need it as much, if not more, to fight for their rights and aspirations that are now subject to a new set of challenges, more demanding than those faced during the Cold War. The common positions included in the Declaration are therefore on international issues such as disarmament, human rights and democracy, Palestine, world financial crisis, food security, UN reforms, climate change and regional issues. The Declaration has also documented a course of action over the next three years so that the objectives enumerated in the Declaration are realized.

The Sharm el Sheikh Summit also elected Egypt as the current Chairman of NAM for the next three years and also decided to hold the 16th Summit in Tehran. This is an important decision, one that is going to help invigorate the organization. Egypt is amply suited to play the crucial role that would be required to mould NAM under changed circumstances; for NAM would have to rid itself of a lot of rhetoric that had characterized the movement in the past. Although with a membership of 118 nations that makes it the biggest international organization after the United Nations, the group has still a great deal of divergent interests, even conflicting ones. For example, Egypt, the current Chairman, has deep differences with Iran, the next Chairman, but for the organization they must now work together. In choosing Iran to host the 2012 NAM Summit, the organization has placed on it the responsibility to moderate her rhetoric and foreign policy goals for the sake of NAM.

For Bangladesh, the NAM Summit has been eventful. The Prime Minister was visible with her active participation and was elected Vice Chairman from the Asia region. This will enhance Bangladesh's importance in global politics. In her address she articulated Bangladesh's position on such critical issues as climate change, food security, world economic meltdown and international terrorism. The meetings that she had on the side lines were perhaps more significant, particularly her meeting with Manmohon Singh, where, on the divisive and dangerous Tipaimukh issue, she received a positive commitment from her Indian counterpart.

Other member states also made good use of the Summit to hold bilateral meetings of which the one between the Indian and the Pakistani Prime Ministers was very significant. These bilateral meetings also highlighted the interest of member states to work out their bilateral differences in order to make NAM more effective. The positive environment and determination in Sharm el Sheikh and the feeling that the world needs a forum such as NAM notwithstanding, the ultimate objective for the organization to be treated by the developed world as equal is still a long way. Although, NAM makes up 56% of world population, their economic clout is still weak that they can make up only by uniting in negotiating with the developed nations. NAM's Chairman and Egyptian President Hosne Mubarak has articulated this need when he said at the Summit that its successful ending is “not the end of the road” and that member states must now endeavour to follow the decisions and outcomes to “take our vision to our partners outside the Movement.” Under changed international environment, the partners may be better poised to listen and accommodate. Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a visit to India in 2007, had advised India to forget NAM and “move beyond old ways of thinking”. The optimism that has emanated from Sharm el Sheikh should make Rice's advice worth trashing.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Diplomatic norms or "Red Line" - Is it being enforced in Bangladesh?

Published in The Daily Independent, July 21, 2009

The recent news in the media on differences of view between the British High Commissioner Stephen Evans and the BNP General Secretary Delwar Hossain on the alleged role of the former's predecessor in bringing emergency rule in Bangladesh is to say the least, interesting. While addressing audience at the "Meet the Press" event of the Dhaka Reporters Unity (DRU), the British High Commissioner denied that his predecessor had any hand in the imposition of emergency in Bangladesh that he said was the result of internal dynamics of Bangladesh's politics and none of external interference. BNP General Secretary, when confronted by journalists after the British High Commissioner had spoken, said emphatically that former British High Commissioner Anwar Hossain had a hand in bringing the emergency.

High Commissioner Evans also dismissed the perception held in the country that High Commissioners/Ambassadors in Bangladesh breached diplomatic norms during the period leading to the emergency, as they were well aware of the "red line." He praised the army backed emergency government for holding free and fair elections and handing power to an elected government, leaving to history to judge the performance of that government. Evans also expressed opinion about ways to make democracy workable in Bangladesh and on corruption and law and order situation in the country.

The High Commissioner was no doubt referring to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR) while talking about the "red line." Diplomats remain within the "red line" according to the Convention as long as they do not interfere in the internal affairs of the host country. Evans should have made a little effort and read the back issues of Dhaka newspapers before defending his predecessor. If he had, he would have known why people in this country believe that Anwar interfered in our internal affairs and that he had a hand in the imposition of emergency. In his frequent TV appearances, Anwar behaved like a Bangladeshi politician, even alluding to his preference for one of the two mainstream parties. Though Dhaka is a bustling capital of over 10 million people, the elite in the city is a very small group indeed. Unless one is speaking aloud in the shower, everything else spoken, even privately, becomes public knowledge eventually. Anwar, in addition to his frequent media appearances, also spoke on our politics freely in private conversations that have eventually become widely known that suggests convincingly his partisan interest in our politics.

Ambassadors of a number of other developed countries Evans defended at the DRU event also interfered in our politics during that period. The former British High Commissioner worked with them as a group and together they looked like they were pursuing an agenda for our politics. The former British High Commissioner was the most visible in media appearances and showed the keenest interest. The media, particularly the private TV channels, followed him the most, owing no doubt due to his Bangladeshi origin as much as for his inclination to talk on our politics. Interestingly, other than these few, the majority of the Ambassadors/High Commissioners remained well within the "red line" that made the people curious and suspicious about the activities of those who were active in our politics.
The extent and nature of indulgence of the former British High Commissioner and his peers in our politics created a great deal of public awareness against what they did, although few were aware about the "red line." Since their defeat, the BNP has been informing the public that diplomats are prohibited by diplomatic norms from interfering in a country's politics and internal affairs. They have also been telling the people about the partisan role of the diplomats, particularly about Anwar.

This awareness notwithstanding, the diplomats continue to express views about our politics and internal affairs. It is incredible that they fail to see that by such interference they embarrass us and in some cases, also harm our development efforts. In an age where information travels faster than the speed of light over the internet, negative views of these diplomats about Bangladesh, such as on corruption and law and order situation, conflicts in our politics, etcetera, can and does give the country a bad image that in turn influences foreign investors against Bangladesh as an investment destination.

Therefore, it is very important that foreign diplomats in our country are reminded that if they have any opinion about our politics and development issues, they should share these with us but only according to norms and practices of diplomacy. They should communicate such views, as done in other capitals, to the relevant place in the host government, in most cases to the host government's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It is not that the diplomats are not aware how they should conduct themselves. It is the environment that we have ourselves created that encourages the diplomats to cross the "red line." Our mainstream parties are responsible for bringing the diplomats in our politics. In the 1980s they went to the Ambassadors, particularly those from the developed countries, to fight Ershad's military dictatorship to restore democracy. That trend continued with the end of Ershad as the opposition continued to solicit the support of the diplomats against the elected government. The public however became aware of such interference only after the private TV channels came to the scene during the last BNP government. Once these channels came, they started chasing the diplomats on a regular basis, asking them for comments and views on our politics and governance to which they more than gladly responded. In turn, the print media followed the TV channels to help bring the diplomats into our politics in full knowledge of the public. The business chambers also joined the media in creating more avenues for the diplomats to speak on our politics and governance. More recently, we are seeing organisations such as the DRU also doing the same.

There is no reason why the diplomats should be allowed to continue violating the VCDR and embarrass us and harm our national interests by creating image problems for us. Unfortunately, it does not seem like they would do anything themselves about it. It is for us to deal with it. The BNP's outburst with High Commissioner Evans could be a silver lining in the cloud for it could mean that the opposition that has so long encouraged these diplomats to meddle in our politics is breaking that relationship. Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs should now come forward and interpret the rules for the diplomats to keep them within the "red line." The private TV channels and organisations such as the DRU must also be brought into the equation and advised not to allow the diplomats the opportunity to talk on our internal politics. Before allowing this opportunity to High Commissioner Evans, the DRU allowed the US Ambassador the same platform. He made good use of it by criticising our politics and our governance. The DRU should know that in no world capital are Ambassadors given a forum where they can openly and freely criticise the host government they way they do in Dhaka. Likewise, the business chambers should be reminded that Ambassadors/High Commissioners should be asked to speak on their respective countries or on relations of their countries with Bangladesh and not on our politics or our governance.

A favourite subject on which we are embarrassed by Ambassadors/High Commissioners regularly is corruption. We know what corruption and greed has done to USA and Great Britain. Both these governments have pumped hundreds of billions of Dollars/Pounds to revive their respective economies from recession because of corruption and greed in their corporate sector. During the Bush/Blair era, USA and UK attacked Iraq on falsehood and lies that caused deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi men, women and children. All these notwithstanding, no one has heard any diplomat in these two capitals expressing opinion critical of the two governments. It would be insane even to think that was possible. Diplomatic norms demand the same of diplomats in Dhaka because of the "red line." The unfortunate fact is in other capitals, host governments strictly implement the "red line"; in Dhaka we do not. It is high time we do what is done in rest of the world capitals.

Friday, July 17, 2009

30th August Japanese elections that LDP could lose

Published in The Daily Star, July 18, 2009

JAPANESE Prime Minister Taro Aso's tenuous tenure seems set to end as he was forced to declare elections for the Lower House following his party's disastrous performance at the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections, winning only 38 seats against the Opposition Democratic Party of Japan's 54 seats. After Koizumi left in 2006 completing a record five years in office, Aso became the third Prime Minister in September 2008 and has ever since been under the threat of losing his job. According to most predictions, he may have set the LDP on course to yield to the DPJ the chance to form the next government in the elections scheduled to be held on August 30th.

Aso, in any case, could hold on to power only till October this year when the tenure of the current Lower House would end mandatorily. He took the chance to dissolve the Lower House following the LDP's disastrous performance in Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly to lead the LDP in the next elections. If he had not dissolved the Lower House to call the elections, he would have surely been forced to quit. Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections should not usually play a role in national politics for it never has. Since April, the LDP lost four regional elections on the trot before the Tokyo elections, which made the defeat in Tokyo so significant.

Japanese voters were becoming increasingly disappointed with the performance of the LDP since the departure of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Their disappointment has been enhanced during Taro Aso's less than a year's tenure by a series of gaffes, a lot of which were contributed by the Prime Minister himself, and economic problems that have led to frequent calls for his resignation. In a highly publicized incident, one of his ministers came to a press interview, while abroad, drunk. Taro Aso has been well known for his gaffes and controversial statements ever since he entered politics, which he continued even as Prime Minister. Some of these gaffes have also offended the voters, for example his remarks criticizing the elderly for racking up medical expenses and being a tax burden that created uproar. He often appeared in front pages of leading Japanese newspapers for his frequent gaffes and controversial statements.

In Japan's conservative politics the LDP has held office since 1955, losing power only briefly in 1993. Nevertheless, there has been constant discussion and criticism in Japan about LDP's style of politics. There are many who feel that it is necessary to change either that style of politics or to give power to some other party other than the LDP. During Koizumi's tenure, many had expected that LDP would change permanently. Koizumi changed the old style of politics within the faction ridden LDP. Before, faction bosses determined the fate of the party and the country issues behind the scene where even the Prime Minister had little influence in the choice of the Cabinet.

In five years, Koizumi turned LDP's politics upside down. He all but destroyed the factions and the role of their bosses. In 2005, he did something unique in Japan's politics. On losing a bill of privatization of the postal services in the Upper House where some members of his own party voted against the LDP, he dissolved the Lower House and called for elections that most analysts thought LDP would lose badly. In that election, he not only took on the opposition but also his own party members who voted against the party on the issue of the postal service privatization bill. He also did something even more dramatic: he nominated nearly 100 candidates who were fresh in politics, fondly called “Koizumi's kids”. He fielded them against veteran opposition candidates and his own party renegades and succeeded in winning the elections with a 2/3rd majority.

Japanese politics relented back to age old traditions with factions and faction bosses regaining most of their historical strength and influence once Koizumi left the scene. The Koizumi kids are forgotten and the LDP has once again become a revolving door of Prime Ministers with Taro Aso the third in 2 years. Although Aso has been forced to dissolve the Lower House in the backdrop of the disastrous Tokyo Assembly elections, the numbers that have been coming to the media on his government's performance and his own popularity rating have been equally disastrous, if not more. Aso's popularity was down to 20% when the Prime Minister decided to call the elections. If the LDP had not lost so disastrously in Tokyo or the end of the term of the Lower House was so imminent, Aso would have gone the same way as his two predecessors Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda.

The LDP is suffering from leadership crisis at this moment. There is no one in the party with the charisma or the leadership qualities required to get the LDP out of the present slump. In a way, Koizumi's five years dominance of LDP and his style of running the party did not allow leaders to grow, who would have the vision to carry forward the directions that Koizumi had set for the LDP. Even within the LDP, there is little optimism today that the party under Taro Aso would be able to turn this election around. In fact, some of the senior members of the party are hoping that the DPJ would win and then make a mess of governance due to its inexperience so that the voters would soon give their support to the LDP to form government once again. These perceptions notwithstanding, there has to be a dramatic change in voters' preference to send the DPJ to power. The LDP has 303 seats and its ally, the New Komeito has 31 against the DPJ's 112 in a Lower House of 483.

The DPJ's best bet in winning would rest primarily on the voters' disenchantment with the LDP's style of politics and the need for a change. The disenchantment of the voters has been reinforced by all three successors of Koizumi with Aso making the best effort in this regard. His challenger is DPJ's President Kunio Hatoyoma, who has a PhD degree from Stanford and a political lineage to match if not better than that of Aso. Kunio Hatoyoma is the grandson of former Prime Minister Ichihiro Hatoyoma and his father was a former Foreign Minister of Japan. Kunio Hatoyoma has called for a new era of politics in Japan that should be inspired by Barak Obama's election as the President of USA. He has also made promises that should be attractive for the Japanese voters yearning to replace Aso. The DPJ has promised to improve welfare measures, lower cost of education, reduce bureaucracy and strengthen the agriculture sector. The voters could very well back the DPJ for these promises in the coming elections.

The next Japanese elections will be interesting as it will be one where the LDP will have to do something extraordinary to win or the DPJ something disastrous to lose. In case of a DPJ victory, Japanese politics could witness the beginning of a new era with the end of more than six decades of LDP's stranglehold on power.

Monday, July 13, 2009

PM Hasina wants BNP in JS - But is she serious about her call?

Published in The Daily Independent, July 14, 2009

In her speech in the concluding segment of the budget session, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said something extremely significant for our troubled politics. She urged the opposition to join the Parliament to fight together the conspiracy she believes is being hatched against parliamentary democracy by extra-constitutional forces. She asked the BNP to play a positive role in the House by giving their opinion on various national issues and added that her government would accept their criticism both in the House and outside to strengthen democracy and resist conspiracy by extra constitutional forces at any cost.

The Prime Minister's encouraging words towards the BNP were delivered during her reaction to a report of the Transparency International, Bangladesh in which the TIB was critical about the quorum crisis and misuse of public money in Parliament. The Prime Minister had special words about the TI Chairman about whom she said that his weakness for unconstitutional government is well known as in the past, he served as a Minister in the unelected government of late President Ziaur Rahman.

The Prime Minister's strong words about the TIB were somewhat surprising, as this organisation has been carrying on such activities for quite some time now. Thanks to the TIB's work for its parent organisation Transparency International, we were placed four times in a row, once under the AL and three times under the BNP, as the most corrupt nation on Earth. The TI Report on corruption in Bangladesh was based primarily on reports in newspapers and the media that are often exaggerated. There were many who did not like an organisation of Bangladesh assisting a foreign organisation to give Bangladesh such a bad name, particularly where the reasons that sustain corruption among public servants in Bangladesh, namely unbelievably poor pay would breed the same level of corruption in any government. The TI report on corruption in Bangladesh did our image irreparable damage while serving no purpose at all in tackling corruption.

During the emergency, the role of TIB Chairman was controversial as he appeared in too many TV channels regularly to project the emergency rule as good for the country. He was also seen on TV and in newspaper pictures/reports as a special guest in the ceremony arranged for the release of a book written by the army chief who is now being accused by both sides of the political divide for a variety of serious misdeeds, including violating the constitution and aiding and abetting corruption.
Nevertheless, it has been very encouraging to see that TIB has pushed the PM to a position where she has seen the necessity of extending a hand to the opposition for the sake of democracy and parliamentary sovereignty in Bangladesh. Politically, this statement is the first positive one we have seen in our politics since the emergency ended with the December 29th elections. Sadly, this statement apart, politics in the country is not conducive enough to encourage the BNP to accept the Prime Minister's offer. There is a lot that would need to be done by the Awami League to bring the BNP to the parliament to tackle jointly the conspiracy against parliamentary democracy.

The ball is now in the Prime Minister's court. She should follow up on her offer to the BNP to join the Parliament by relenting on the stalemate over the issue of seating. She should look at her absolute majority and not at what the BNP did the last time to give the latter the extra seats they want. That will take the wind out of the sail of the BNP's negative stance for joining the Parliament. Former Speaker Jamiruddin Sircar's case is becoming a new issue to encourage the opposition to stay away from Parliament. The Parliamentary Committee has found evidence of misuse of funds. The recommendation to scrap the former Speaker of his seat for such allegation is however not within the jurisdiction of the Committee according to the Constitution. Article 66 of the Constitution that specifies the qualifications and disqualifications of a Member of Parliament does not provide for removal of the former Speaker on grounds recommended by the Committee. The Prime Minister must help find a way to deal with it in a way that does not place the treasury and the opposition on a fighting course that will only provide the opposition with further excuse to make the Parliament more dysfunctional.

The Prime Minister has also urged the BNP to play its role outside the parliament as a responsible opposition to criticise the government to make parliamentary democracy stronger. To make this offer meaningful, the Prime Minister must rein in her Ministers and political leaders in the Awami League against provoking the BNP as a habit. Motia Chowdhury's recent allegation that the BNP leader Moudud Ahmed is illegally occupying his residence of last 27 years is a case in point. If the latter is indeed illegally occupying the residence that Moudud has rejected vehemently, the issue is a matter of the law and not one that would fall within the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Minister's responsibilities. This sort of statement will only vitiate the political climate and make the Prime Minister's offer towards the BNP meaningless. Some of the other Ministers are regularly appearing before the media to blame the BNP and Jamaat for conspiracies against the government and in some cases, against Bangladesh. It is time that they follow the Prime Minister and seek support of the BNP to fight the conspiracy against parliamentary democracy.

During the emergency, the caretaker government pursued the AL and the BNP with vigour and vindictiveness; incarcerating both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. Harsh treatment, in many instances violating human rights, was meted out to the senior leaders of both the parties. The present government has reviewed these cases and has recommended quashing a large number of these cases on the ground that these were politically motivated. Unfortunately, all the cases recommended for quashing are those of the AL leaders. This is surely a move that will create the differences between the two parties to strengthen their history of conflict and lack of trust. This move is also unfair and will not help achieve the cooperation that the PM now seeks for the sake of parliamentary democracy. She should now instruct the Home and Law Ministries to deal with the issue in a non-partisan manner.

Very recently, the Cabinet in principle has approved a draft law entitled "Father of the Nation's Family Members' Security Act 2009." According to the Agriculture Minister, the Prime Minister and her sister would be allocated houses under the law when enacted. While it is true that the sisters are extremely vulnerable from a security point of view and there is little to argue on the security recommended for them, the issue of allocating houses for them raises a few eyebrows because the government has decided to withdraw the house allotted to the BNP leader Khaleda Zia. If the government indeed allocates houses to the sisters, then it should withdraw the move to withdraw the house allocated to Khaleda Zia. Such a step will help create the conditions for bringing the BNP back to the Parliament without which parliamentary democracy will just not work, even if the conspiracy that the Prime Minister apprehends is not there.

In some of her recent political statements, the Prime Minister has given the nation the sense that she perceives correctly the direction in which the government should move for the sake of Bangladesh. The offer to the opposition to come to Parliament to fight the conspiracy against parliamentary democracy is a manifestation of this perception. She now needs to act positively on creating the conditions that would encourage the opposition to take up her offer.

Bangladesh's glorious war of independence was fought for establishment of democracy that cannot be achieved without the government and the opposition cooperating on a common agenda of development. It is not just for establishment of democracy; cooperation between the two is what is holding Bangladesh back from becoming a middle income country. It is also the best guarantee against extra-constitutional interference in our politics.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Iran: Engagement the only option

Published in The Daily Star, July 11, 2009

JOHN Bolton, President Bush's Ambassador to UN in New York, did not particularly endear himself to the Muslim world for his views and actions while in office. In fact, he enraged the entire Muslim world by his neo-con views and defended President Bush's “you are with us or against us” view with passion and conviction till the Senate denied him congressional approval in 2006 for a new term.

It was, therefore, hardly a surprise that in his recent post-editorial “Time for an Israeli attack” that appeared in the Washington Post's July 2nd edition, Bolton wrote that “Israel's decision on whether to use military force against Iran's nuclear weapons programme is more urgent than ever.” While trashing President Obama's overtures towards Iran, he urged Israel to go ahead and take out Iran's assumed nuclear capabilities. He argued that the recent events in Iran proved that the clerics were again firmly back in power and there is no way that there would be a peaceful regime change in Iran and that it is the right time now for a military strike against it. Bolton went on to suggest that Iran has been working for the last twenty years to acquire nuclear weapons and only “the most theologically committed to negotiations still believe that Iran will renounce its nuclear programme”, a comment aimed at ridiculing President Obama.

One would have thought that with the end of the Bush era and emergence of Obama, people like Bolton would be history; it does not seem to be so. The events in Iran have acted as a catalyst to bring these individuals and forces back. The election in Iran may not have been to the satisfaction of the west. But then, for a president who has not led his country very badly in the first term re-election should have been a normal event and hardly one to take the west by the extent of surprise it has.

As the demonstrations turned violent leading to few deaths, “breaking stories” by the western media suggested widespread opposition in Iran against the ruling clergy and that their stranglehold on Iran was under serious threat. The media hype encouraged and influenced most of the western countries to believe that President Mahmoud Ahmedejine had not won the election fairly although the disturbances were mostly in Tehran. Even after a partial recount was ordered by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that made no difference to the results, western leaders kept up issuing statements against the election.

Britain led the charge: Prime Minister Gordon Brown warned that Iran must answer satisfactorily serious questions of election irregularity. Obama, who on election day in Iran, said “we are excited to see what appears to be a robust debate taking place in Iran” later expressed critical views of the election as the western media reported the spread of violence. Surprisingly, the concerns and criticisms came only from the western countries while others either congratulated Ahmedejine's re-election or remained silent.

The western countries overlooked a few crucial facts and jumped to too many conclusions. For example, they failed to see that Moussavi's past is hardly one to convince anyone that if elected he would end the clergy in Iran. As Prime Minister, from 1980-89, he has been responsible for many of the allegations of human rights violation for which the west has been targeting Iran ever since the Iranian Revolution in1979. The western media has also failed to tell the world that on the nuclear option there is little to choose between Ahmedejine and Moussavi, as there is between the generations in Iran. They have also failed to mention that Iran is surrounded by nuclear weapons states on all sides, with the one most critical of her for her alleged nuclear pretensions, namely Israel, which is also the most dangerously armed with nuclear weapons. John Bolton and people like him forget that in the present day, people are capable of forming their independent opinion, thanks to the information revolution and the internet. Iranians, old and young, know about Israel and its nuclear capabilities and when the focus is on Israel, Iranians, both old and young, have no reason to fight or differ.

The views of Bolton and others like him notwithstanding, the elections have brought to surface genuine democratic aspirations within Iran. Majority of Iranians today are citizens who have grown up in a world that did not see the regime of the Shah and the struggle of the people of Iran to overthrow that regime. They have grown up without the hatred for the US and increasingly with a feeling that Iran must interact with the west for its own future. For the clergy, these developments have come as a wake-up call that Iran must change to take care of the aspirations of a new generation of Iranians who have grown up with full knowledge of the world outside and very appreciative of what is happening in that world.

The post election developments have revealed divisions within the clergy that could also eventually change Iran from within, in its own time and pace. Former President Rafsanjani, a very powerful cleric, has openly confronted Ahmedejine. His daughter was arrested and released as a supporter of Moussavi. The Supreme Leader and the Grand Council have taken decisions that have been conciliatory towards the supporters of Moussavi. We have nevertheless also seen that despite their inner differences, the Iranian clergy is united in their stand against the West's interference in the politics of their country and that once conviction was backed with the authority of the state, the demonstrations died down as Iran's situation returned back to normal. Even Bolton acknowledges this with the opening sentence of his op-ed where he writes: “Iran's hard-line Mullahs and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards are unmistakably back in control...” These developments in Iran as a consequence of the election will certainly place Ahmedejine under pressure from within to accept President Obama's offer of engagement. In fact, the controversy surrounding the election will now create pressure upon Ahmedejine to be flexible to accommodate the views of Moussavi supporters in negotiations with the US. President Obama can ensure this by following up on his offer towards Iran made before the election by ignoring views of people like Bolton and the media hype following the election.

The recent events in Iran bring back to memory the Tiananmen massacre of June 4th 1989 in China. The West expected then that with their encouragement, Chinese communist leadership would fall making China a western style democracy! Articles portraying Ziang Zemin as worthless, who would be blown away if the struggle continued, appeared in western newspapers for years after the Tiananmen Massacre till China proved convincingly its capability of dealing with its development efforts, both political and economic. Today, China unequivocally speaks for itself with its success.

With Iran, the west should not make the same mistake as it did with China following Tiananmen in assessing reality. The foundations of the Iranian clergy have deep roots in the society, the current demonstrations notwithstanding. One must not forget that the candidature of Moussavi was approved by the Clergy together with that of Ahmedejine. Moussavi, if elected, would have represented the clergy as devotedly as Ahmedejine on all issues including the nuclear issue. If the west is seriously concerned about Iran turning into a nuclear weapons state, the best way to deal with it is to engage with it because, despite the post-election disturbances, there is no reason to believe that those who supported Moussavi would also support the west in their effort to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, if the leadership there should so decide.

Iran is not Iraq. Despite the recent disturbances, Iran is united against external interference in its internal affairs. Hence Bolton's recommendation to take on Iran militarily can be taken seriously only in a fit of madness. Obama should set the disturbances aside and continue to follow the path of engagement with Iran that he set for his administration with his Cairo speech in June. He may be pleasantly surprised to find Ahmedejine more accommodating as a consequence of the post-election developments in Iran.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Time to severe nexus with political parties

Published in The Independent, Dhaka, 10th July, 2009

Recent news about the new central committee of the Jatiyabadi Chatra Dal (JCD), the student's wing of the BNP has attracted national attention because those named for the main positions are middle-aged individuals. Most of the students in the Universities today were not even born when the newly named President entered the university the first time. He is 44 and his close aides are also in their 40s or late 30s. This phenomenon of middle aged students heading a student's party is not particular to the BNP; the AL's student's party, the Bangladesh Chatra League (BCL), is also led by individuals more or less in the same age bracket.

One good initiative that was taken during the emergency was the one intended to end political parties having a student's wing. The initiative was supported by all except those directly involved in the nexus. In the period immediately after the present government took office, that conviction that the nexus is bad for the nation was strengthened as we witnessed the ugliest side of student's politics. In all public universities, students of the BCL ransacked and rampaged dormitories to wrest control from the JCD that had occupied these dormitories while the BNP was in power. A number of these universities had to be closed down due to the violence that resulted from the clashes between the BCL and the JCD. In disgust the Prime Minister resigned from her position as the chief patron of the Bangladesh Chatra League.
Students are the consciousness of the nation; they are the ones upon whom the nation must invest the most because in their hands lie the future of the country. In our history, the students have played a glorious role at different critical times. The Language Movement of 1952, all the movements against the dictatorship of Ayub Khan in our Pakistani days; the 1969 students movement that paved the way for our glorious war of liberation, are all movements in which the students played the major role. In fact, in many instances, the students paved the way that the politicians followed.

With the emergence of Bangladesh, one expected that the need for the students to worry about national politics would be over and they would be able to spend their time as studying so that they could empower themselves with knowledge in building the nation. During our Pakistani days, there was also the lure of international communism that was an added attraction that encouraged the students to participate in national politics as some of these parties were based on the communist or socialist ideology. Bangalee nationalism and international communism that provided the rationale for involvement of students in national politics are history. For a brief period during the Ershad era, it was necessary for the mainstream parties to be assisted by their student's wing for sake of democracy. Since the fall of Ershad, that reason is also a part of history.

The mainstream parties, nevertheless, continued to retain their student's wings although the reasons for their involvement in national politics faded. Student's politics thus began to reflect the same realities of national politics such as conflicts, corruption, extortion and violence. In a very interesting and analytical study entitled "The Freedom Industry and Students Politics in Bangladesh", Iftekhar Sayeed writes: "Student politics has been a deadly, internecine affair. Today, student groups are used by political parties as private armies: they are given guns, told to extort money, taxes and tolls - and bring down the government through violent hartals. They have become a highly criminalised group." In this treatise written in 2006, Sayeed gives spine chilling statistics. In 2001, 47 student politicians were murdered; 44 the following year; 61 the year after and 35 in 2005.
These murders have not been committed for sake of ideology or principle, nor for establishing democracy or any high sounding objectives. These were murders committed by criminals masquerading in our public universities as student leaders. Today, leaders of student's party use their political connections for personal gains; they extort money mafia style and destroy the environment of the educational institutions as they wish. In fact, these leaders indulge in activities that would shame even the hardened criminals. The events in Jahangirnagar University a few years ago where student leaders indulged in gang rape with full knowledge of the university authorities and the political party to which they belonged with neither coming forward for the victim would have shamed any nation.

The criminal activities of the student leaders are widely reported in the media but they fail to arouse the conscience of the political parties who give them more indulgence instead. The reason for the indulgence, as Sayeed has suggested, is to use student parties as private armies to fight political opponents. During the AL's last tenure, President Justice Shahabuddin publicly said that students were getting guns instead of education and urged the students to severe their connections with the political parties. His words fell on deaf ears and the nexus between the student's parties and political parties have grown stronger. The victims of such an undesirable nexus, unfortunately, are the majority of the students who suffer in the form of session jams that take away valuable years from their lives. The public universities of Bangladesh are the only educational institutions in the world where students are delayed by years in passing out because the students parties fight with one another and carry out the negative political agenda of political parties they represent that leads to frequent closure of these institutions.

The emergency we recently had may not have done that much good for the country. It has nevertheless highlighted to us some of the fundamental problems facing the nation. One of them being the revelation of how corrupt, criminalised and conflict ridden is the face of our politics. Student parties acting at the behest of such politics and political parties can only vitiate the educational environment. This is what student politics is doing to the public universities of Bangladesh.
The nexus between the political parties and their students' wings serves the ulterior purposes of just a few, while affecting badly the lives and careers of the general students. No matter how one looks at this nexus, there is just one conclusion to reach: that it is destroying the future of our students and this must end. In the period after the new government came to office and the BCL was re-occupying the dormitories mafia style, there was a picture covered by most newspapers that showed as an inset, a dead body of a student who had just then been killed and in the larger picture, a student flouting a machete that was meant to kill more. It was reminiscent of Burundi-Rwanda where during the genocide such machetes were used for killing millions. That picture should be the nadir for the nation's conscience and unite everybody for a common cause; to retrieve and regain the public universities by breaking the evil nexus for the sake of those who would be leading our nation in future.

The BNP has shown insensitivity in naming a JCD national committee where the leaders named should have been in the party's national committee and not in the JCD. It makes no sense and given the nature of student's politics in recent times, it raises questions about the party's credibility. The AL has no reason to feel better either about its own credibility as it also shown the same indifference for the Prime Minister's decision to distance herself from BCL notwithstanding; the latter has not changed its mafia like activities. The reasons that sustained student politics like the Language Movement, movement for Bangladesh, for international communism, are now part of history. There are no reasons for the students to be involved in national politics anymore. It is time that the "umbilical cord" between the two is severed for the sake of the students who are the future of Bangladesh.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

BNP’s boycott of Parliament and return of negative politics

Published in The Independent, July 5, 2009

In recent times, there has been a series of news and views expressed in the media on the boycott of the BNP in the Budget session of Parliament. These views are critical. Treasury bench parliamentarian Suranjit Sen has suggested recall of the members who abstain from attending parliamentary sessions.

Unfortunately, BNP's boycott of the Parliament is not new. Suranjit Sen should know it better for this trend was set by his party when they were in the opposition when democratic government returned to Bangladesh after Ershad's fall in 1991. BNP obliged by doing the same when the AL was in office between 1996-2001. Awami League continued this trend again when they were in the opposition in 2001-2006.

Boycott of the parliament is unacceptable under any circumstances. In Bangladesh, it is a symptom of what is a much bigger and wider problem in our politics; a negative mindset with which these two parties do politics. We all know that during the five years tenure of the BNP, there was widespread corruption, politicisation of the bureaucracy; criminalisation of politics, and parochialism and narrow mindedness in distributing benefits of governance to those who were not supporters of their party. The Awami League was voted to office with a historical majority, among other reasons, also because of these drawbacks of the BNP and because of the AL pledge to fight these elements. Of course, the voters were also impressed with the other AL promises such as trial of the war criminals and its Vision 2021.

Half a year or 1/10th of the AL's term is already over but most of the reasons for which the people voted them to power have remained promises. In fact, the AL is moving in the same direction that the BNP went with governance. Corruption is gradually but surely finding its way back where the BNP left it. The politicisation of the bureaucracy is entering into a new phase with the largest number of senior bureaucrats being made OSDs in Bangladesh's history to determine their political affiliation. In appointing Ambassadors/High Commissioners in major capitals, professional diplomats have given way to political appointees, the first time professional diplomats have been treated so summarily that even the Foreign Secretary has not found a position. The criminals are back in full force with a slide in the law and order situation that is the cause of concern of everyone now. The trial of the war criminals, promised to be held as soon as the party took office, is still uncertain.

There are a few actions that AL has taken, even if they have gone against BNP, needed to be taken from their point of view, like for instance those related to history. The public understands this. But to clear all cases brought by the ACC against the AL during the emergency as politically motivated and not include even one from the BNP is something that has raised apprehension as to the intent of the ruling party. Then of course there are issues aimed on a personal level that, however correct they may be legally, are politically going to cause dissension and conflict in politics in place of the unity that the country and the government so badly needs.

Although the two mainstream parties never find any issue upon which to cooperate, they do have an eerie sense of cooperation in what is not good for our politics. When one criticises the other while in the opposition, it ends up doing worse regarding those very issues on assuming power. In the present instance, the AL is not allowing BNP the extra seats in the front row of parliament on the plea that the BNP declined a similar request from AL when in power between 2001-2006. While the BNP was in power, it dominated the Parliament by its two third majority and accommodating the AL's extra seats could have easily been done. In the present parliament, the AL has even a larger majority but it is denying the BNP the extra seats to pay back for what they did to the AL. For a political party enjoying such a huge majority, as the BNP did in 2001-2006 and the AL now, it is sadly a reflection of a negative mindset. The BNP has already suffered for this mindset and the AL could be exposing itself to the same fate by following the BNP's footsteps.
A recent study has placed Bangladesh 19th in the list of countries prone to become a failed state. This is unfortunate. In South Asia, two countries are higher on the list, Pakistan at 10th and Sri Lanka at 12th. These two countries have reasons to be placed ahead of us. Bangladesh should fare ahead of all other nations in South Asia because she has all it takes for successful nation building. We are a homogenous and egalitarian nation where religious and/or regional divides have little impact on our politics. We have shown the world what we can do by coming together as we did in 1971. In following the clarion call of Bangobandhu for fighting for our independence, we became a monolithic whole and succeeded in defeating a genocidal army to win our freedom and nationhood.

Unfortunately, we have not been united under a cause ever since. In fact, in the initial years, the politics was one of political assassinations and violence leading to militarisation that was an anathema to the rationale of our war of independence. When democracy returned, we saw the two mainstream political parties fight on issues that have not allowed Bangladesh to achieve the potentials with which we are endowed. Thousands of days were lost on hartal that gained nothing for the country but pushed us higher as a failed state.

The AL should realise that the 19th position we have received in the failed state criterion is not encouraging news to achieve their Vision 2021. The way to achieve this vision is for it to try and revive the spirit of 1971; the spirit of unity. That spirit will never be achieved if it believes that the only way for Bangladesh's development is the Awami League way. Bangladesh's potentials and its development will succeed only when the ruling party can get over this mindset and evolve a bipartisan approach to nation building. It is true that even if the AL tries to achieve unity, the BNP may not be forthcoming. But if the AL makes moves for seeking the BNP's cooperation, the latter will find it difficult to stand in the way of the AL's initiatives for transforming Bangladesh away from the threats of failing as a state.

Time is fast clicking away. The BNP that was in disarray after the elections is consolidating slowly. Unless the AL concentrates on governance and does so on a bipartisan way, it is only a matter of time for violence and conflict to return in our politics. In that event, AL's "Vision 2021" and "Deen Bodoler Pala" could remain merely promises. With little tolerance towards the opposition that is the basis of democracy, the AL can enhance its chances of achieving these promises.
Recently, the British Parliament elected a Speaker. In a Parliament where the Labour Party has a comfortable 66 seats majority, a Conservative has been elected as the Speaker. After his election, the new Speaker John Bercow in a speech said that he would be giving up his party affiliation so that as Speaker he could be impartial as is required by the office. In the present political climate in Bangladesh, we cannot even dare to hope that we could have a Speaker comparable to the British Speaker. But then why can we not hope that the present Speaker of Bangladesh would at least have the courage and common sense to give the BNP the extra seats and get them to the Parliament. He should know better than anybody that a Parliament where the Opposition remains absent cannot be a democratic parliament no matter how much one would like to blame the BNP for the boycott or how correct it would be to do so. If he could muster that courage, he would in fact be doing the AL and Bangladesh a favour and teaching the BNP a lesson for its action when in power.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Indian High Commissioner provokes opposition on Tipaimukh

Published in The Daily Star, July 4, 2009

THE Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka Mr. Pinak Ranjan Chakravarti has taken the centre stage in our volatile politics, albeit for the wrong reasons. He has incurred the wrath of the BNP who has demanded his withdrawal immediately. According to media reports, the High Commissioner made disparaging remarks about the BNP without naming it for opposition to the proposed Tipaimukh dam at a seminar on regional connectivity sponsored by the India-Bangladesh Friendship Society. The Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni was present as the chief guest.

The Indian High Commissioner has also been in the news before his controversial speech while making rounds in the Secretariat, explaining to the Ministers that the Tipaimukh dam will not be harmful for Bangladesh and that it would not be constructed in violation of international law. His efforts have been reasonably successful as some of the Ministers have supported him in the media; although, outside this small circle, significant opposition has been building up against the dam across a wide section of the people.

In fact, environmental groups and the civil society in Bangladesh were already at work articulating public opinion against Tipaimukh dam before the High Commissioner's speech. In Manipur where the dam will provide electricity and control floods, indigenous people have described it as a "death trap." Environmental groups there also have fiercely objected to this dam. There is a whole literature available on the internet on vicious opposition inside India to Tipaimukh. Quite expectedly, the BNP, sensing the political potentials, has been leading the opposition to the dam.

The issue has all it takes to arouse passion in Bangladesh. If constructed, it will affect Bangladesh's northeast the same way the Farakka Barrage has started environmental degradation in the north-western part of the country. This dam, like the Farakka, is on an international river that India has planned without proper consultation with Bangladesh as the lower riparian. The site of the dam is on an earthquake prone zone that raises the possibility of devastating the north eastern part of Bangladesh with water if the dam is destroyed by an earthquake in future.

The High Commissioner has not cared to take note of the passion building in Bangladesh or opposition in his own country over the dam. He said instead that Bangladesh has no position under international law to object to the project. The High Commissioner has dismissed the opposition to the dam as “India phobia” implying that the BNP is responsible for it, although to a vast majority of the people of Bangladesh, this is patriotism. In fact, thanks to the High Commissioner's efforts, he has brought “India phobia” and patriotism to mean the same in the context of the Tipaimukh issue.

The high commissioner's explanation that the proposed dam would not violate international law and, therefore, Bangladesh has no right of objection is very simplistic. There are serious legal issues that could be subject of a separate article. Additionally, Bangladesh Water Development Board officials in 2003 had informed through the media that the Tipaimukh dam is part of a grand plan to connect thirty international rivers that flow from India to Bangladesh by building man-made canals and dams to divert water from India's flood prone northeastern region to the relatively arid central provinces. The high commissioner has not mentioned about these serious matters concerning the dam that the public of Bangladesh are learning nevertheless as they become more and more concerned with the potential dangers.

In Bangladesh, we are more tolerant than any other capital in giving leeway to foreign ambassadors and high commissioners over their activities as guests in our country. We tolerate them even when they address press conferences to openly accuse us of being corrupt, ungovernable, etc. in contravention of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. In this case, the Indian high commissioner has trashed public sentiment over a very volatile issue and provoked the BNP, a major party in Bangladesh that has twice formed the government, leaving it with little choice than to react in the manner in which they did. He disparagingly made statements that questioned the expertise of Bangladeshi experts and accused opponents of the dam for “lies” in projecting the dangers of the dam.

The high commissioner should have been summoned to the Foreign Ministry for an explanation for these remarks, particularly those hinted at the BNP. Unfortunately that was not possible because the foreign minister was present when the high commissioner made his remarks. However, she chose to remain silent and gave the BNP an opportunity to shoot at two targets with one bullet. They have been looking for an opportunity to confront the high commissioner for his views on Tipaimukh in recent times. He has given them this opportunity in a silver platter by his speech. Dipu Moni's silence has come as a “political bonus” to the BNP as they called for her resignation together with the withdrawal of the Indian high commissioner.

The foreign minister seems to be finding herself increasingly on sticky wickets while facing the media. In this instance, the Indian high commissioner spoke before she did. She thus had the opportunity to react to the remarks. If she had an antenna attuned to diplomatic norms and deviations, she would have instantly realized that she has been put on a spot, just like she was when an Indian journalist caught her on the wrong foot with the question on “buffer state” during the visit of the Indian foreign minister in February.

Indian diplomats are well known for their professionalism and their calm under testing circumstances. They never reacted in the manner the present Indian high commissioner has even when provoked. In fact, Indian environmentalists oppose this dam more forcefully than ours do and that makes the tone of the high commissioner's remarks difficult to comprehend. During the last BNP government, the present high commissioner's predecessor was made to listen to an anti-Indian diatribe from then Bangladesh foreign minister in a seminar. She retained her calm during the seminar, which was then considered by everyone as a professional reaction to an unprofessional conduct.

In February this year, the Indian foreign minister visited Bangladesh as special envoy and met the army chief without meeting the leader of the opposition. In April, the Indian foreign secretary also met the army chief. These meetings have raised questions and concerns in Bangladesh about Indian intentions. The high commissioner's speech enhances these concerns because it suggests that India's diplomacy vis-à-vis Bangladesh is becoming more assertive and arrogant and less helpful for development of better Bangladesh-India relations.

Bangladesh is a deltaic plane where the rivers that flow from India through her into the Bay of Bengal give her the fertility to sustain one of the most densely populated parts of the world. The grand Indian Plan will turn this fertile deltaic plane into part desert and part land unfit for agriculture due to rising salinity. The proposed Tipaimukh dam will carry on this dangerous process started by the Farakka barrage by destroying the fertile Sylhet division that receives water from the Barak River into its Surma and Kushiara rivers. The high commissioner has suggested generation of electricity as a main reason for construction of the Tipaimukh dam. In fact, it will generate only 400 MW of electricity. If India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan cooperate for building dams in Nepal where the terrain is natural for such projects, then there would be ten times more electricity with the added advantage of controlling dangerous floods in these parts. The argument of electricity generation from Tipaimukh dam is therefore a very weak one indeed compared to environmental threats and damages to Bangladesh-India relations that it would surely cause.

The prime minister correctly sensed that the Indian high commissioner has raised a politically harmful controversy for her party and Bangladesh. She has therefore asked the BNP to send its own experts to study Tipaimukh, whose opinion would be considered in adopting Bangladesh's response. The ministers have also stopped talking about the dam. The high commissioner's speech may in fact become a conduit in bridging the AL-BNP divide against Tipaimukh for its dangers to Bangladesh. It should now move the foreign ministry to enforce norms in the way ambassadors act in Bangladesh.