Friday, September 17, 2010

Anti-Muslim chauvinism unleashed at ground zero

The Daily Star: Strategic Issues; September 18th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

President Obama has seriously failed to imagine that his support for the Muslim cultural centre near Ground Zero would create such repulsion and hatred. Since the President's support based upon the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom for all religions, conservative groups and the families of 9/11 victims have raised hell to stop the proposed centre. It has led to renewed hate campaign and attacks on Muslims. A priest in Florida has called for burning of the Koran to mark the 9/11 anniversary and led General Petraeus to warn that such an act would seriously harm US efforts in Afghanistan and President Obama to describe it as a “recruitment bonanza “ for Al Qaeda. Another group has called for denying Muslims the right to build new mosques unless they renounce the Koran!

The anti-Muslim hate campaign has brought to surface the ugly face of America as a nation that also harbours racial and ethnic hatred that was almost forgotten. First, the falsehood; the project on which the latest hate campaign is based is not a Mosque but a cultural centre that would have a basketball court and a culinary school where only the top two floors of its 13 floors would be used for Muslim prayers. The rest is for use of all New Yorkers. Second; there are two Churches literally few feets from Ground Zero. Third, the project is a few blocks away from Ground Zero and 4/5 blocks from the planned September 11 memorial and would not be visible from the hallowed place because of high rise buildings in between. Four, the project has been renamed Park 51 to calm the hate mongers who have claimed that it would be a training ground for terrorists! Five; in the vicinity of Ground Zero, there was Masjid Manhattan that was established in early 1970, months ahead of the World Trade Center. It lost its lease two years ago to a big building project and now Muslims pray in a relocated Masjid nearby in a basement where only 20% of the devotees can pray at a time! Six, the hate campaign reveals a strange contradiction about America. While America has spent such huge sums of taxpayers' money and sacrificed lives of over 4000 of its soldiers for democracy in Muslim Iraq; it is carrying out an unprovoked hate campaign against the Muslims in the country. Seven; attacks on Muslims have increased significantly under President Obama than his predecessor and even Mosques have been bombed. Finally, the unprovoked hatred against the Muslims is unbelievably vicious!

In fact, the vibes that history conscious people get are ominous. They are reminded of the fate of the Japanese after Pearl Harbor attack and of the alleged communists during the era of McCarthyism. The holocaust started with steps like the current anti-Muslim hate campaign. When Hitler was leading his people to commit history's worst crime against humanity, educated people followed him in stages before they realized what monstrosity they had supported but when they realized, it was too late for them to stop the holocaust. Those who are caught in the frenzy against the Muslims should pause and read Pastor Martin Niemoler's famous statement in Frankfurt in 1946 when he admitted how as a German conservative, he had no problem with the beginnings of the holocaust till he himself was arrested for insufficient enthusiasm. Perfectly rational and educated men like him were also caught in the fray and supported Hitler's rise till it was too late. Since 9/11, in USA the Muslims have been systematically attacked at work; on the streets and in the Mosques and the issue of the so-called Mosque near Ground Zero have been taken totally out of context by those leading the hate campaign, to add fuel to the fire. The pattern is deeply disturbing.

These events have demoralized the Muslims in the USA. A recent New York Times story headlined “American Muslims ask, will we ever belong?” has highlighted the anxiety among Muslims who are concerned that the hate campaign against them is increasing, not diminishing. They have been particularly flabbergasted by the threat of a pastor of a small Church in Florida to burn Korans on the anniversary of 9/11 and dismissal by Christian groups of this as a stunt has not allayed Muslim fears. Muslims, who before 9/11 had believed that they had assimilated more successfully in the American society than Muslims in Europe, are now worried about their future. According to Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim Chaplain at Duke University; “there is hopelessness…helplessness…real grief” among Muslims in USA. Such feelings have forced some Muslim leaders to ask their community to shun Eid celebrations this year that coincides with 9/11 and instead give time to community service but these efforts may not halt the hate campaign unless America as a nation sees the monumental mistake they are making.

The Muslims in the USA are the “collateral damage” of the war on terror; like the many hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslim men, women and children killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nevertheless, it is America's credibility as a leader in world affairs that is being tested. Despite the feeling of gloom that has descended upon the Muslims, it is not doomsday yet and American democracy and its legal system are still stronger than the bigots who are leading the hate campaign. There is nevertheless great concern in minds of Muslims that even people like Newt Gingrich, once the Speaker of the House, has lent his name in this hate war by liberally misrepresenting Muslim history to incite more hatred and no significant leader of the conservative groups in USA has come up to stand against the tide of hatred against the Muslims.

President Obama faces Congre-ssional elections later this year that could make or break his presidency. But he has a greater responsibility to reassure Muslims that in the land of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, they have as much right to live with the same freedom as believers of other faiths because the hate campaign has the potentials to destroy US's democratic roots. The President has disappointed Muslims and rational Americans by failing to condemn the pastor's threat to burn Koran unequivocally instead of pointing to him the danger his action would bring for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He would do better if he reflected on Pastor Niemoler's historic words before this hate war gets out of control. If Americans do not stand up against this war of hatred, then what would be the difference between them and the Taliban? Meanwhile the Pastor has “suspended” his pledge to burn the Koran to the relief of all rational Americans but the hate war against the Muslims is far from over.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

The death of Mrs. Indira Gandhi


Friday, 17 September 2010

Author / Source : My Foreign Office Years, 1986-1990

M Serajul Islam

Mrs. Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980 with a big mandate. By 1983 when I arrived in New Delhi, she had crossed three years of her 4th term as Prime Minister. Early in that term, she lost her younger son but preferred successor to the Nehru mantle Sanjai Gandhi in a plane accident. Two incidents about Mrs. Gandhi will forever remain etched in my memory. One was my first view of her in person and another a story told to me by a friend about what transpired when she went to see Sanjai minutes after he had died in the air crash.

I saw Mrs. Gandhi at a SAARC meeting in New Delhi in end of 1983. It was not a very large meeting; just 7 delegations and was held at Vigyan Bhavan. There was very little fanfare attached to the event. Mrs. Gandhi came to the meeting to give a short speech to inaugurate it. The Bangladesh delegation was led by Ambassador Abul Ahsan who was then the Additional Foreign Secretary. I was the only other member of our delegation. The Prime Minister arrived at the appointed time but in a very angry mood. We could hear her angry voice clearly but not the words as she walked to her chair with the officials led by R.K Dhawan, his Private Secretary behind her visibly nervous and scratching their heads. Her presence and her voice had electrified the room. I could sense that I was not the only one affected by her presence. Everybody was as moved as I was as we all waited in pin drop silence for her to take the microphone. She spoke firmly but there was none of the anger in her voice. As soon as she finished her speech, she came around the room to shake hands with the members of the delegation. As she came to our table and extended her hand towards me, I was frozen for a brief moment but somehow managed to shake her hand. I never felt such a moment in my life and I instantly knew that I was shaking the hand of one of the most outstanding political leaders of our time.

The other incident was narrated to me by Jaglul Ahmed Chowdhury, a well known columnist now but who was then the BSS Correspondent in New Delhi. Jaglul told me that he was going from his home to his office in a three-wheeler the morning Sanjay Gandhi died. He heard the news of the crash as he was passing Safdarjung Airport where Sanjay’s plane had come down. He was able to get inside the airport to the place where Sanjay’s body was kept with his credentials as a foreign correspondent. By then Mrs. Gandhi had already arrived. There was no emotion at all that was exceptional for a mother who has just seen her son’s dead body; a son who was being groomed to be her political heir. Instead, she was anxious about the location of a key that he told officials should be somewhere in his pocket! A year later when she herself was killed and Rajiv was left to mourn as the grieving son, he too did not show any emotions in public over the death of her mother!

The day Mrs. Gandhi was shot was like any other day in the Bangladesh High Commission in New Delhi, except the fact that the High Commissioner AK Khandker was in Dhaka for official duty and Tareq Karim, our present High Commissioner in New Delhi, was the Acting High Commissioner. At about 10 am, the receptionist called me on the intercom to inform me that there was a gentleman who had a “very important” communication to give to the High Commissioner. As my office room was across the reception, I came out to meet the gentleman. He appeared disheveled and quite visibly, tense. I asked him to come to my room but he insisted on seeing the High Commissioner. By then, I could sense that he indeed needed to see the High Commissioner. I took him to the room of the Acting High Commissioner. As soon as we sat in our chairs, the gentleman blurted out that Indira Gandhi was dead! He told us that he was a doctor undergoing training at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and he was in the emergency when Mrs. Gandhi was brought in. Before he was asked to leave the room, he saw that Mrs. Gandhi was lifeless on the stretcher with her body riddled with bullets and blood all over. He said categorically that she was dead and there was nothing the doctors at the AIIMS could do!

It was soon after we had this dramatic discussion with the doctor that news spread everywhere that there had been an attempt on Mrs. Gandhi. We kept talking with our friends in the other Embassies but no one could either confirm or deny that Mrs. Gandhi had succumbed to an assassin’s bullet. In fact, at that moment we in the Bangladesh Embassy had perhaps the best information than any of our colleagues in the other Embassies with whom we shared our information. The External Affairs Ministry was not much helpful with information; or the media that kept on saying that there was an attempt on the life of the Prime Minister and that doctors at the AIIMS were trying their best to keep her alive. Around 2 in the afternoon, a journalist who was a good friend of some of us at the High Commission who was then working for a foreign news agency and was following the incident at the AIIMS flashed the news that Mrs. Gandhi was dead based on inside information that he had received that AIIMS has stopped asking for blood from another hospital across AIIMS soon after mid-day from which this friend of ours assumed that Mrs. Gandhi was no more.

The world was nevertheless kept in tension till about 6 in the evening when an All-India radio broadcast the news that Mrs. Gandhi had died. The delay in the announcement was intentional; to allow Rajiv Gandhi who was then in West Bengal, to arrive in New Delhi. At the High Commission, we were all huddled together as we heard and also saw tension spread like wildfire through the city after the announcement as Sikhs were systematically targeted and attacked, in many instances killed. Just after the news was broken, a Sardarji who had come out of a bus was chased into the High Commission where we took charge of him with an agitated crowd shouting that we hand him over to them. One of us called the External Affairs Ministry for guidance only to be answered back that information had reached the Ministry that a guard from the High Commission had fired upon the crowd! We explained that the High Commission did not have any armed guards and only arms carried were those by the Indian Police who looked after our security. We could sense that the Ministry was much more tensed than we were and we would have to fend for ourselves instead. We took the Sardarji inside and told him he could stay with us as long as he wanted till it was safe for him to walk out. Surprisingly for us, he was not nervous at all and although he was hurt by the chase, he showed none of it. After 15 minutes or so, he calmly walked out of the back door of the High Commission!

Not many Sikhs were as lucky that night and the days that followed when there was mayhem in slaughtering of the Sikhs. In New Delhi, names and addresses of Sikhs were given by the Congress to rioters and attacks on Sikh houses were carried out with precision. While hundreds of Sikhs were killed, and Sikh properties destroyed, even accidentally, no non-Sikh property or life was endangered. We were required to stay at the High Commission after office hours and return home very late to prepare for President Ershad’s trip to New Delhi for the funeral. I drove my own car home but never felt any danger for two reasons; as a diplomat my identity was clear to the rioters on the road looking for Sikhs from the number plate on my car; and second, as a Muslim, I was in no dangers from the rioters who were allowed by the police to move around freely although Delhi was under curfew at night till the end of the funeral. A friend from a European Embassy who lived in an area where Sikhs also lived in good numbers took some pictures that eventually were published in news weekly that showed Sikhs being thrown live into fire! For me, the carnage on the Sikhs by the Hindus did not leave a very good impression of India’s democratic and secular claims.

In fact, while my experiences during my New Delhi posting enhanced my understanding on many issues regarding India; it made me realise that India was not fair when it came to its neighbours. Indian democracy had two faces; one known and appreciated by the West and another, a very ugly one where politicians were susceptible to all sorts of corruption. In fact while Mrs. Gandhi held charge, there was the added contempt about Bangladesh for its military rule and its perceived closeness with Pakistan. We were always welcomed by the hosts for official representation and also had close friendship with our counterparts. Some of them viewed that we owed India much more loyalty than we had shown for their contribution in our liberation war. I remember telling an Indian diplomat that it would not be wise to press Bangladesh on that issue for it would create more distance between us than was the case. Of course, there were times we were also put on defensive because of our policies at home. I faced a very embarrassing predicament one day when I was called to the External Affairs Ministry on an official matter. After the discussion with my host was over, he started praising BTV for its wonderful camera work with reference to an international hockey tournament that was then being played in Dhaka. I knew the reason for his praise for soon he was asking me the reasons for the exuberance in the stadium when Pakistan had scored a goal against India! That was one of the occasions that I realised that representing Bangladesh could also be a humiliating job!


Published in The Independent
M. Serajul Islam

Dhaka city, like most cities in our region, is literally flooded with auto rickshaw that is a principal mode of transport for Dhaka’s citizens who do not own a car. The auto rickshaws are fitted with meters and therefore under the law, the auto rickshaw drivers must charge passengers by meter only. The law notwithstanding, the drivers decide at will on whether or not to accept payment by meters. Invariably, during rush hours, the drivers make the choice not to carry passengers on payment by meters, charging substantially more than the payment would be by meter.

People of Dhaka are literally hostage to the whims of the auto rickshaws who carry out their unlawful acts right under the nose of the police who prefer to look the other way. With the situation being as it is, the authorities are now considering enhancing the fare of the auto rickshaw ride, the third time in the last few years. In return, the auto rickshaw owners have promised that they will “try” and ensure that the auto rickshaw drivers would accept payment from passengers by the meter.

I am not sure whether there is another capital city where those who run public transport on meters have the cheek to tell passengers that they can either accept their offer to travel at prices negotiated by them that is much higher than by the meter or go to hell and get away with it. Auto rickshaw drivers have been doing this as the rule rather than the exception for a long time. The authorities, without going to the basic issue first which is to ensure that the auto rickshaw drivers dare not demand fare outside the meter, are in the process of accepting their demand for enhancement of rates. In return, they are accepting a feeble assurance from the auto rickshaw owners that they will ensure that the drivers accept fare by meter. One does not need a crystal ball to predict that like the dog’s crooked tail, the drivers will accept fare by meter for a short time and then get back to their nature of blackmailing the passengers.

By the look at the auto rickshaw drivers, it is not hard to say that despite what they do with their passengers, they by no means make a hefty sum at the end of it. However, going by the huge number of auto rickshaws plying in Dhaka, the business must indeed be good. Therefore there is a group that is making a good profit out of it. Before the fare is enhanced, the authorities must first make a professional study of the business and ensure that it is, first, not enhanced to an extent that will make it difficult for those who use auto rickshaws who are all people with fixed income; and second, that some of the benefit goes to the auto rickshaw drivers so that they are not tempted to blackmail the passengers when the demand is greater than supply as it is during rush hours. Whatever decision the authorities take, they must first ensure that the auto rickshaw drivers accept fare by meter reading or face the law because their arrogance to refuse payment by meter it is a matter of showing the thumb not to the passenger but more seriously, to the law; a tendency that is in many ways at the root of our failure to achieve sustainable development.

We are indeed a nation quite inclined to break the law when we have power in our hands. The case of the hawkers in Gulistan proved the point. In their greed to make quick money on occasion of Eid, they took over even the busy road, caring only about their interests. The hawkers have already “established” their right to say damn to the law by claiming their “right” over the foot paths which should be called by some other name like leasing property of the law enforcing agencies for nearly all of Dhaka’s so called foot paths are under occupation of the hawkers or being used as storage areas for construction materials. All these flagrant violations happen with ok
the police watching, like illegal parking under police watch. In our country there was once a saying that if the tiger catches a human , he finishes his prey in one grab but if an individual falls on the wrong side of the police, he suffers the same fate but with 7 times more pain. Very few individuals take our police lightly. Hence, there is no reason to believe that the hawkers violate the law over space on foot path and the roads without connivance. There is a nexus between the hawkers and the police as there is a nexus between the police and those who park illegally in no parking areas.

The problem will of course not go away merely by increasing fares with a promise from owners and drivers for accepting payment by meter or beating up the hawkers. The problem is very deep rooted in the way we are as a nation. When we stand alone, we accept whatever is dished out to us, even injustice but when we get together, we swing like the pendulum and prefer to take the law in our hands instead and break it with impunity. Rationality is not our national trait. In between, we have the problem that those who work for public are paid horrendously low salaries and thus always in the lookout for the extra buck to keep body and soul together; only once they start doing so, they become slaves to greed.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and can be reached on email

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ershad's Predicament

The Independent, September 7th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

The decision by the High Court that the seventh amendment to the Constitution is invalid has landed former President HM Ershad literally in thick soup. He is blowing hot and cold ever since the Court’s verdict, more to assure himself than anyone else. Meanwhile the demand for his punishment is also gathering strength
There is no doubt that the Court’s decision on military rule as unconstitutional and therefore illegal has hit a strong chord in the psyche of the people of Bangladesh. Therefore the demand for his trial is also a popular one. However, the Court has now passed on the matter to the Parliament to determine the next course of action; on what to do with President Ershad and what new laws and punishment to enact so that in future men in uniform would not dare to usurp political power. President Ershad’s strength in believing that nothing is going to happen to him evolves partly from the fact that he is an ally of the Awami League and a partner of the AL led coalition government.

Before moving ahead to try Ershad, it would be useful to take a look at history around the time Ershad made his successful bid to usurp power. In particular, it is necessary to take a look at Ershad’s career before recommending any punishment for him. In the tumultuous politics of the 1970s, Ershad was a very small pawn when the Generals who fought in the war of liberation were holding the helm of both the military and the civilian administration after the changes of August 15th, 1975. Ershad made his journey up the ladder of power in the military establishment as a compromise candidate in the politics that the army played those days. Those who promoted him thought that he was innocuous and that even in a miracle; he was not likely to make a bid for political power.

Upon the assassination of President Zia over which Khaleda Zia has cast doubt about Ershad’s involvement, Ershad received support from a wide range of politicians and senior civil bureaucrats who urged him to declare martial law and capture power. These politicians and civil bureaucrats supported him because they believed that with him in power, they would be able to have the strings of power with them. In fact, it may not be entirely incorrect to state that President Ershad staged a military coup to takeover political power where the encouragement for the takeover did not come entirely from the military but also from the civilians. The only twist in the tale was the fact that Ershad was smarter than the politicians and bureaucrats who thought he would be a puppet in their hands. In fact to give the devil his due, Ershad outsmarted all who supported him and soon, almost all political parties and civilian groups were eating out of his hands.

In his nearly one decade long military rule, Ershad had managed in winning over almost everybody except the people and Khaleda Zia who challenged his rule for the entire 1980s to punish him for the death of her husband through the establishment of democratic rule. The people of Bangladesh have a problem with military rule embedded deep in their psyche and when the AL joined with the movement for restoration of democracy, they came out to back them spontaneously. The result was Ershad’s downfall in the same manner as all military dictators in history had to eventually bow to the will of the people.

President Ershad was a weak military General but a very shrewd man. He saw enough support for him and his military rule among the politicians and the bureaucrats and exploited both to his advantage and ruled with all powers firmly in his hands. For those who these days have suddenly awaken to the virtues of democratic government and the unacceptable nature of military rule as an antithesis to the spirit of the liberation of Bangladesh , let them be reminded that no politician or political party or for that matter civil bureaucrats and civilian groups were threatened or coerced to support his rule. They all did voluntarily. Of course, they received privileges in many shapes and forms; land, money, promotion, etc that helped Ershad earn their loyalty. Even today as many are giving statements to the media in loud voices let them also be reminded that they did not challenge either the 5th or the 7th amendments in the Court. Both amendments came about accidentally by cases filed by people who had no desire to challenge the military rule.

Not too long ago, when General Moin decided to follow the path of his military predecessors, he too received a lot of help from politicians and civil society groups. In fact, he was so emboldened by such support that he wanted to give the country his vision of democracy by attempting to form a political party. Many leaders of both the mainstream parties stepped into his trap that has practically ended their careers in their respective parties. The eras of military leaders such as Zia, Ershad and Moin should not leave anyone in doubt that in our history, politicians and civilian groups have for their selfish reasons given the military the support they needed to , first, come to power and , second, to retain political power.

It is good to see the public reaction on the 5th and 7th amendments in the context of military rule. There seems to be a consensus, that military rule is an anathema to the spirit of our liberation. Unfortunately, future tryst with military rule can be ruled out not by trying and punishing General Ershad or by writing into the Constitution that such attempts would be treason and hence punishable by death. The only way to ensure that Bangladesh will never again have the misfortune of coming under military rule is for the political parties to give up their confrontational politics and come together on a bipartisan basis on a minimum agenda of economic development and issues of national interest. If the parties fight and bring Bangladesh to the edge of becoming a failed state, who then is going to stop military intervention or for that matter, foreign intervention?

Punishing Ershad alone will not serve much purpose in banishing military rule unless the political parties; politicians and civil bureaucrats who actively helped him to rule are also exposed and tried. Further, to banish military rule, it would also be necessary to make an example of the military’s intervention and high-handedness under the last caretaker Government. All said, it seems that President Ershad is right; that he cannot be punished because it would open a Pandora’s Box where many politicians and civilians are hiding. Bringing out those faces would embarrass those who are expected to try him.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and can be reached on email

Friday, September 3, 2010

Myanmar - shifting to military democracy?

The Daily Star, September 4th., 2010
M.Serajul Islam

THE military leaders of Myanmar through a brief radio broadcast have announced elections to the parliament on November 7th. Political parties have been given time till the end of the month to submit their list of candidates. Earlier, the military regime had tactfully ensured that Nobel Laureate Aung Saan Suu Kyi was kept out of the contest by extending her house arrest till November 2010. To the regime's satisfaction, the extension led Aung's National Democratic League (NLD) to decide against registering for the elections that resulted in the party being banned. The NLD opted against registering to give the international community the clear message that the next elections would be anything but a new strategy to entrench the power of the military.

In fact, international opinion has concurred with Aung who had led the NLD to a decisive victory in Myanmar's last polls held 20 years ago only to be denied power and kept under house arrest for 14 years since that victory. There are also many other visible signs to suggest that the ruling military is ready for nothing short of continuing with their stranglehold on power, albeit under a civilian facade. First, 166 of the 498 seats would be reserved for the military. Second, ahead of the elections by a well laid out policy a substantial number, including the Premier, resigned from the military to contest the elections. Third, the military has already left no one in doubt that its civilian extension in the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) whose members are all beneficiaries of the military junta and obliged to allow military dominance for their own sake. Thein Sein now leads the USDP to make the linkage more than obvious.

At least 40 political parties have registered to contest the elections of which a breakaway faction of the NLD naming itself the National Democratic Force is one. Most of these parties are small and have regional or limited agenda. The western nations, led by the United States have expressed deep reservations about the polls. As part of President Obama's policy of engagement with regimes such as the one in Myanmar, US Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell visited Myanmar twice in six months, the last one in May this year, the first such senior official to visit Myanmar in 14 years. Then he met Premier Thein Sein and Aang Saan Suu Kyi. He returned deeply disappointed with the country's preparations for the elections. The United Nations has also expressed similar concerns. UN Secretary General Baan Kin Moon has called on the Myanmar military junta to keep its commitments to hold a credible and transparent election for transition from military rule to democracy.

There have also been news, unconfirmed as yet, that the top military leaders of Myanmar General Than Shwe with the next two Generals, Maung Aye and Thura Shwe Mann of the 12 member State Peace and Development Council have resigned from the military. The resignations that are now inevitable are in anticipation that the next parliament would elect General Than Shwe as the President and the other two Generals as the Vice-President and Premier. If the resignations are true and the three generals hold those anticipated posts, then the military would have a full proof mechanism in place for any civilian government to even dare to challenge the military's dominance. Meanwhile, there has been the biggest reshuffle in the military since General Shwe became the top General more than two decades ago and has held the country by the scruff of the neck ever since. More than 70 senior army officers have been involved in this reshuffle that has been strategically made by General Shwe to assure the military's loyalty once he leaves the military to become the country's President.

Those who are interested in looking for a silver lining in the cloud argue that it would not be correct to dismiss the forthcoming elections straightaway. They further argue that the elections would bring into politics, leaders from the new generation who would be able to motivate the aging military leaders about the need to move gradually towards genuine democracy. They also feel that within the military as new generation of leaders take charge; there would be able to influence the military's mindset in line with changes and realities of the contemporary world. Finally, they also feel that this is the most sincere and realistic offer by the Generals to cede absolute power.

The results of the elections are hardly anyone's concern. The military backed USDP will win the elections convincingly and form the Government. This is why there is seemingly no obstacle being created by the military in the way of freedom of the candidates to move freely in the country, something not usual in Myanmar. The main concern is how those who would be leaving the military's top positions to become the country's top political leaders and parliamentarians share power with the new leadership in the military. General Shwe has just not ruled Myanmar with an iron fist; he also had to tackle conflicts within the army as well. In 2004, he had to sack the Premier. He rose from an ordinary postman to become the most powerful man in his country. He has also reportedly acquired significant wealth together with earning wrath of the silent opposition as well as Myanmar's diverse ethnic groups that his regime has subdued ruthlessly to have an enormous personal stake in the way Myanmar transforms politically. The aging strong man who is 77 and his close colleagues who are not young either, under considerable world pressure for democratic change, thought time to be opportune to share power with civilian groups who have grown rich under their sponsorship and ready to accept the dominance of the military even under future civilian rule. The military is also wary that without some concessions, Myanmar's economy and condition of the people that are in dire straits could lead to new spate of mass uprisings. Despite all the full proof measures to assure continued military dominance, General Shwe and his Generals who are known to be “notoriously superstitious” chose the date of the election by invoking astrology so as to leave nothing to chance!

In effect what would be taking place in Myanmar through the 7th November elections is a transition of the top military leaders to top civilian posts; from pure military dictatorship to military led democracy. In fact, as a civilian President, General Than Shwe has no reason to apprehend in the short run any challenge to his authority from the elected Government. His main and perhaps only apprehension would be how those he would be putting in charge of the military would treat him when he says goodbye to his military uniform for civilian outfit. The history of such transformation has not been good for military dictators where eventually democracy has won. That gives hope that history could repeat itself in Myanmar.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Published in The Independent, September 3rd., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

My posting in New Delhi was one of the most exciting in my entire career. One of the main reasons that made New Delhi exciting was the fact that it was then and still is Bangladesh’s most important diplomatic mission abroad because of the importance of India to the country. However before I had the opportunity to experience the importance of New Delhi, I had so many problems that my life in Canberra did not prepare me to face. In fact, diplomatic life in Canberra was comfortable from all respects in settling down in a new post; New Delhi, was not so.

Before we got posted to an Embassy those days, we used to read a document called the Post Report that was supposed to prepare a diplomat for the post to which he/she was being posted. If ever there was a document that was redundant for the purpose for which it was prepared in the first place, it was the Post Report. Before going to Canberra, I read this Post Report for Canberra almost with religious devotion but on landing there, I found it of little use in settling down to my first diplomatic post. Fortunately, in case of Canberra, things turned out too good and I would not have missed any trick even if I had not read the Post Report.

Upon arriving at a diplomatic post, the personal issues that worry a diplomat most are getting a house, getting children to school and acquiring a car. On all three counts, Canberra was the ideal post. Nevertheless, I had to settle those issues immediately upon arrival before I could start my diplomatic work. Those days, the government allowed an officer 28 days for staying in a temporary accommodation during which the officer and his/her family was paid daily allowance that was pretty good. Most of us could save some money out of it for many things that a family needed in a new station far away from home. On a first posting, inexperience is a big obstacle to resolving those issues. My High Commissioner was very supportive in seeing that I settled down smoothly. My colleague Hosne Ara Karim too was very helpful. I could thus find myself a house to step into after my 28 days’ stay at a temporary accommodation was over.

Getting a car was just too easy. In Canberra, when I was posted there, most cars to Australia were imported. There was a hefty duty on such cars. A diplomat could of course buy imported cars without paying duty. Luxury imported cars such as Mercedes had a very high rate of duty and a diplomat could buy such a car and then sell in the market after 2 years that allowed a handsome profit. I could have done so as most diplomats did, particularly those from the developing countries, but I chose a Honda Civic instead as I thought that someone who never owned a car as was the case with me, I would just not feel comfortable driving a Mercedes as a Second Secretary. The whole process of buying my first ever car took me half an hour!

Admitting our daughter in school was even easier. Before going to the post, I had collected her school transcripts, other reports, afraid that missing out on one or another document would land me in great problem. When my wife and I took our daughter who was just over 6 to her school, the principal just saw her birth certificate then called a teacher who came within minutes and the next thing we saw, without a word said, was my daughter walking away with the teacher! We clung to the documents and returned home ecstatic but feeling somewhat like happy fools!

The contrast in resolving those issues in New Delhi was unbelievable. I had a house ready, left by my predecessor with the choice to take it or to hire a new house. In between his departure and my arrival, a month had elapsed. In that one month, the house and its furnishings were taken over by rats and cockroaches with no one from the High Commission even caring to consider how we would stay in that house. That first night was a nightmare. We were awake the whole night afraid that we would be run over by those who had taken over the house in that last one month. The next morning, the High Commissioner’s wife came to see us. She had received us at the airport the previous evening when we arrived and when we had told her of our first night’s experience, she said smilingly that she knew what we would face but said nothing because of the confidence with which I had told her we would like to move into our house. She then took us with her to the Residence where stayed for a week. During that week, we had the house cleaned and made habitable. Afterwards, I spent more than a month looking for a new house but failed because Delhi was then not an easy place to hunt for a house and those who went about as “agents” were very slippery customers and always had a trick up their sleeves. I found also that an “agent” is New Delhi was a self appointed broker and not the agent to which I was accustomed while posted in Canberra. Those “agents” and others who provided services to diplomats in New Delhi like the clearing and forwarding agents seldom spoke the truth. Learning to deal with them was often a greater hassle than doing the job for which we were posted to New Delhi.

I was lucky admitting my daughter in a school but that was thanks to a colleague who had established close contacts with the Principal of one of Delhi’s best schools, the Delhi Public School at RK Puram. She of course had to give a test and was taken in after she passed that test. However, a colleague who arrived a year later had a miserable time getting a son and a daughter admitted in the same school. The principal was as forthcoming with them as he had been with my daughter. After they passed their tests, their admission for some mysterious reason was stuck. When we inquired, we found out that the Head Clerk who was a Brahmin was unhappy we were using our contacts with the Principal who was from a lower caste to get our children admitted. He put his foot down and the Principal regretted his inability to do the needful. It was only when that Head Clerk was approached and handled diplomatically, he withdrew his objection and the children were admitted. That was for us a firsthand experience on the realities of the caste system.

I had a hard time buying a car too and my experience in Canberra made it harder to accept realities in Delhi. Unlike Canberra, a diplomat could not then buy a car out of the show room. An order had to be placed through the dealer in Delhi who then had to get the car from the place of origin, in my case Japan as I had ordered a Mazda. When placing order, the dealer gave me a time frame of two to three months. The car was delivered to me after six months and meanwhile, there were innumerous promises that the car was on way and would be delivered at some future date not too far away! My experiences with such service sector companies and individuals led me to advise my successor and anyone else posted to New Delhi later not to expect that promises would be delivered on time in Delhi. After I received my car, the six months wait was soon forgotten because people would look at my car with admiration as those days; a foreign car was not a common sight on Delhi roads.

Delhi’s richness as a capital is world class. Diplomatic missions send their best talents to India and knowing some of them and interacting with them was a matter of satisfaction. As a Bangladeshi diplomat, some of us were also sought after by our colleagues from other missions, particularly from the western nations because we could provide them with a perspective on India that they were not able to get themselves. Our access to the Ministry of External Affairs and other Ministries and Departments in New Delhi was easy although negotiations with the hosts were always quite difficult. Delhi was then and still is one of our biggest Missions. It had Defense, Press, Commerce, Water Wings in addition to the Diplomatic Wing where we worked. My colleagues in these Wings were extremely nice individuals and the leadership of the High Commissioner brought us all together in a spirit that did not then nor does it now exist in most of our bigger Embassies. One of those who left not long after I had joined the Mission was Jamil Majid an officer of the 1970 ex-PFS batch whose memory was phenomenal. At the Headquarters some years later while he was being given farewell before his posting to London , AKH Morshed had said of him that with his departure , the Foreign Ministry would need an encyclopedia to make up for his loss!

My experiences in New Delhi were rich and varied. I intend to reflect more upon these experiences in next issues. One of the events on which I hope to write is on the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated that was just when I had settled down in New Delhi and was starting to enjoy the posting.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The controversy over the Caretaker Government

Published in The Independent, September 1st , 2010
M. Serajul Islam

Both the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party took credit for the concept of the neutral Caretaker Government (CG) when opinion at home and abroad was favourable as a welcome innovation to holding a free and fair election in an emerging democracy. The AL took credit for visualising the concept of elections under a neutral CG. The BNP credited itself for enacting into law the concept when it absolute majority in the short lived 6th parliament. It is therefore a matter of some surprise that both the parties have in some measure expressed their displeasure with the concept. The ever energetic TV talk show specialists are more enthusiastic than the political leaders in expressing their views on the demerits of the CG. One former Minister from one of the smaller parties in the present coalition was quite emphatic in dismissing the concept as undemocratic and a disgrace for the politicians in a recent TV talk show.

There does not seem to be many takers for this Concept these days. The parties and the people who talk on public issues have swung away from the concept. The two main criticisms that have surfaced against the CG are, first, it is undemocratic; and second, it suggests that the country’s democracy is not mature enough for the politicians to hold a neutral election and therefore bad for the country’s image. On the face of it, both criticisms are correct. But in politics, if only correct things were to happen, then there would be heavenly peace which is not possible. There are of course arguments against the criticisms as well.

Let us focus on the second criticism first. Our politics, despite what politicians may say, is confrontational where the spirit of accommodation and tolerance, two core pre-conditions for democracy, are absent. The two mainstream party distrust each other is a manner that has no parallel anywhere, making politics confrontational and immature. It is out of such feelings that the AL came out with the concept of a neutral CG because it was not confident of a fair election under an incumbent government even though that government was elected. The AL was convinced that elections under a BNP government would be unfair and subject to manipulation and interference against it. The AL was in a sense correct because every government in the past that held elections manipulated elections and that includes both democratic and un-democratic governments. AL’s views about elections under a neutral CG proved correct as it was able to replace the incumbent BNP Government under such a government and then lost and regained power, all held under a neutral CG, thus proving the usefulness of having such a government for holding fair elections, its unelected nature notwithstanding.

On elections under the CG being un-democratic, the issue would look different when seen from a different perspective other than what the country experienced during the last CG that has clouded the minds of many of the critics. If the AL amends the Constitution to do away with the CG, the next elections would be held under it; in other words under a democratically elected government. But would that make the next elections democratic? The answer cannot be a clear one because a democratically elected government can also make an election un-democratic by manipulation and interference. We have examples of such manipulation in our own history. Next door in India, the elected Congress government of Indira Gandhi grossly interfered in the election process in 1971 that led to protracted legal battles in the Court. Indian democracy was finally saved when the Court was able to assert its authority over the elected Government that was adopting un-democratic means to remain in power. Eventually, the emergence of a powerful and independent Election Commission in India has ensured further that an incumbent government does not interfere or manipulate elections.

Bangladesh does not have an EC anywhere near as powerful or independent as in India and the Courts are just beginning to manifest their power. Much more importantly, politics has become more confrontational where the AL and the BNP’s distrust for each other have heightened. The fact that both the mainstream parties have meanwhile politicized the bureaucracy is also an issue that causes apprehension in public mind about fairness of election under an incumbent government. Till politics improves, a general election to form the government without a neutral body holding it would definitely be rejected by the losing party/s. It is in this context, there is the need to take a dispassionate look at the CG and its merits before rejecting it. A CG would be headed by a retired Chief Justice. By the very process through which a Chief Justice rises to his position and retires, common sense would dictate one to assume that such an individual would be a man of integrity , honesty and with experience to decide upon issues based on legality. The other advantage of the CG is the fact that its tenure is limited by the Constitution and the 10 individuals who would assist the Chief Adviser would be people of standing in society acceptable to the political parties who would have no stake in the government to be elected.

These days we are talking of past constitutional violations. I am a bit confused with this exercise because we are going back into decades for constitutional violations while we are ignoring what has happened in the immediate past. The last CG has violated the Constitution with contempt and has very nearly destroyed the concept of the CG itself. It extended its stay up to 2 years where the Constitution limits its term to three months. As for contempt for politicians, there is plenty of documentary evidence left by General Moin who wanted us to follow his “ vision “ of military-led democracy leaving no one in doubt that he held the politicians responsible for failing the country. If we are indeed interested in upholding the sanctity of the Constitution and punish the violators, as we should, then we should look into the immediate past CG closely and then we would be able to set enough examples and recommend enough deterrence and punishment to the offenders to put fear in those hearts who would dare to usurp power in future.

Such an exercise would also allow us to review objectively what went wrong with the concept of the CG and set new legal guarantees to avoid any aberrations in future. It would be un-wise to reject a concept that has proved its worth but where it has failed, it has failed because of the politicians and the extra constitutional forces. It is difficult to visualise the next elections under the incumbent government simply because in the meantime, politics has become more confrontational. The BNP has already rejected the EC as a pro-government institution. Elections under the incumbent government with the EC as it is would be a prescription for political disaster. The best way out would be elections under a reformed CG with the EC modelled and strengthened like the Indian EC. Let us not forget that the Supreme Court has meanwhile manifested its pro-democracy credentials strongly and if we continue with the CG, we would have a retired Chief Justice to head it next time who would have greater public acceptability.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and has a blog