Saturday, August 27, 2011

Israel’s unprecedented regret to Egypt

Daily Sun
August 28, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

A recent event in the Middle East has gone almost un-noticed in our news media. Israel that has dealt with its neighbours for decades with contempt and has got its way as it wanted expressed regret for the 3 Egyptian soldiers who were killed by one of its warplanes that was retaliating against Palestinian militants who had killed seven Israeli soldiers on the Israel-Egypt border near Gaza.

The regret was extraordinary because it came after Israel had been expressing serious concerns over the past few months that Egypt was lax against militants on its side of the Israel-Egypt border. A series of unexplained bombings in this area where Israel’s has its vital gas pipelines crucial to its energy needs had heightened its concerns. In fact, Israel at first accused Egypt of complicity in allowing the militants to cross over to Israel and mount the attacks that killed the 7 Israeli soldiers.

The regret came after a series of diplomatic moves by Egypt. It announced that it would recall its Ambassador to Israel and summoned the Israeli Ambassador in Cairo for a strong demarche. The tension, the worst since the Camp David Accord of 1979 through which Egypt recognized Israel, had western diplomats scrambling to diffuse a crisis in Egypt-Israel relations that have been showing signs of breaking in the seams after the departure of President Mubarak, relations that have been crucial to giving Israel the upper hand on the Palestinian issue.

President Mubarak in fact played a dubious role during his entire tenure as Egypt’s President since 1981. In return for huge military aid and support for his regime by the United States, President Mubarak paid lip service to the Palestinian cause while behind the scene; he gave support to Israel to strengthen its occupation of Palestine. When the militant Hamas took control of the landlocked Gaza strip in 2006, Israel and Egypt imposed a total blockade on Gaza. The blockade subjected Gaza’s half a million citizens to inhuman hardships. The Egypt-Gaza border is literally the soft underbelly for Israel’s security needs and Egypt’s support was invaluable to Israel during the Mubarak era.

Thus when President Mubarak was fighting for his political survival, Israel’s concerns for him and his regime were expressed openly and desperately. Israel urged and encouraged President Mubarak to hang on to power and not to be discouraged or frustrated by US decision to withdraw military aid to his regime. In fact, Israel promised to make up the shortfall of aid to Egypt that the US had threatened to withhold.

When Mubarak fell, the hope in rest of the world was that Israel would finally see the need to compromise on the Palestinian cause in accordance with international law and the numerous resolutions that have been adopted at the UN that Israel has rejected with contempt. As the Arab Spring lingered in Egypt without showing positive results either in terms of Egypt’s democratization or Palestinian rights, a great deal of frustration was starting to creep in among Egyptians

The deaths of the 3 Egyptian soldiers leading Israel to regret have revived that hope; that the Arab Spring would just not end dictatorships in the Arab world by bring the first rays of a new dawn of democracy but also result in the Palestinian issue being resolved in accordance with the principles of international law and justice. Prior to this unprecedented Israeli regret, the US had but lost all interests in the Palestinian issue. President Obama’s promise made in his Cairo speech of June, 2009, was subsumed in his domestic agenda and the loss of Congress to the Republicans in the mid-term polls last year. The Palestinian peace talks were allowed to stall nearly a year ago after a short period of negotiations because the US could not muster the courage to tell Israel to stop the illegal settlements

In frustration, his Middle East envoy Senator George Mitchell resigned. President Obama did not even feel the need of appointing a new full time new envoy in his place. That sent a depressing signal to those in the Muslim world who were eagerly looking up to President Obama as the President who had the moral courage to do the right thing for the injustices that the Palestinians have been handed over the last many decades, losing their own land to foreign occupation.

The Arab Spring started in Tunisia, felled President Mubarak in Egypt, and put the Syrian dictator Bashir Asad and the Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi (who has since fallen after 40 years in power) under the spanner to renew hopes for Palestine . The Palestinians were hopeful that the US would take the messages in the Arab streets that have united Hamas and Fattah in Palestine. It did not. The US made no serious attempt to bring Israel to the negotiating table. Instead, President Obama and the US Congress warmly received Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington in May this year and assured him that he has no reason to worry about the Arab Spring.

It is in the context of these frustrating developments that Israel’s apology for killing the Egyptian soldiers assumes great significance. The words of apology came from the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak who had initially laid the blame on the Egyptians. The Egyptian cabinet rejected the apology, taking note of the mood in the country that is overtly anti-Israeli with Mubarak’s security not in the scene to subvert the public mood. The transitional Egyptian Government is also in search of some legitimacy to help the transition to the elected post-Mubarak regime.

Egypt’s stance over the deaths has underscored a few positives for Palestine. First, henceforth, Israel cannot expect anymore a supportive role from Egypt on the Palestinian issue. Second, the Egyptian government can no longer play a role on the Palestinian issue that was played by President Mubarak which was public support for Palestine but effective support for Israel behind the scene. Finally, governments in the Middle East would henceforth think twice before playing a role that President Mubarak had played.

In other words, public mood in the Arab streets and the stance of the Arab governments on the Palestinian issue are now crystallizing towards that unity the lack of which Israel had exploited successfully against the Palestinians. It is this changing stance in Middle East among the governments and the public mood in Arab streets that the US needs to focus on to be in touch with reality. Despite spending trillions of US dollars in Iraq, US popularity in Iraq and the region has not inched upward a bit. It continues to be as unpopular among the Arabs as ever. Governments there may no longer find it possible to support US-Israel cause anymore. The Israeli regret points towards that; a realization by Israel that the Arab Spring has put it in a very difficult spot where it may be finally forced to negotiate a settlement on Palestine even without US urging.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Egypt and Egypt.

Debate in Parliament; Ominous Signs

As I See It Column
The Independent
August 27th, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Those who watched live a recent TV coverage on a debate in the parliament were treated to an unbelievable spectacle. There were no members of the opposition in the session. Yet the mood inside the parliament was such that the opposition on its best day could not have achieved what the members of the ruling coalition achieved in embarrassing the government and humiliating it.

The main object of wrath in the debate was the Minister for Communications. He was attacked by peers of his own party and ruling coalition in a manner that he would not have anticipated from the opposition. The verbal language with which he was attacked was full of venom. The body language of those who attacked him was vicious and sarcastic. Those who watched wondered if the parliament indeed needed any opposition.

There were of course enough reasons for the attack to which the Minister of Communications was subjected. The highways of Bangladesh have been literally turned into death traps and pot holes where buses are unable to ply on some major roads or kill at will where they are able to ply. In fact on many routes, the bus owners were left with no alternative but to suspend operations. Given that our buses ply on almost any roads and bus owners would do anything for profit, the suspension of operations of many roads suggests that they were indeed totally un-usable.

Yet the Communications Minister was in no mood to listen to calls from anyone including his own party members. In fact, he found humour in the frantic cries of all over the conditions of the roads. He also used the ploy that is now a tradition in politics of the country; blame the previous government for the ills. He then tried something unheard in Bangladesh’s politics. He blamed the Minister of Finance for not making the budget allocations for maintenance of the roads.

It was the Communications Minister’s misfortune that Tareque Masud and Mishuk Munir were killed in a road accident at a time when the pitiable condition of the highways had brought the nation’s wrath upon him. The mood of the nation suddenly became intense for finding a meaning for the deaths. The civil society articulated the people’s mood and called the deaths murder. Strangely, the government failed to respond to the public mood in the correct manner by failing to pinpoint responsibility either for the two deaths or the dilapidated conditions of the roads. Thus the Communications Minister did not show a trace of worry because the Prime Minister was not inclined to put his job on the line.

At this juncture the debate in the parliament over the roads took place. Some leading members of the ruling party and its coalition members fell upon the Minister of Communications like hunters going for the kill. All they said was what the public wanted to hear. It would all have been good for democracy in general and great for parliamentary democracy if what we saw in the parliament that day was indeed done in democratic spirit. In fact, it would have been a dream come true.

However what transpired left no one in doubt eventually that it was anything but democratic spirit that was played out in parliament that day. The Deputy Speaker who was presiding over the unbelievable session gave a hint of what was actually happening. He advised the Ministers to go to the Prime Minister with their complaints instead of blaming one another and allowing the members to attack them on the floor of the parliament. His advice was no doubt prompted because the members by then had crossed over to criticizing the government that he did not want under his watch.

The Deputy Speaker’s advice fell on deaf ears and the “debate” became even more animated afterwards. A good number of parliamentarians were not ready to let a chance pass by in just not attacking the Minister of Communications; they attacked a few other Ministers, criticizing their public behaviour that was embarrassing the Government. The Whip of the Party and the Deputy Leader also tried to calm the members down, sensing that the Treasury bench members were in fact acting as opposition members and were doing a fine job in humiliating the government. One senior Minister was seen urging members to keep up their attacks instead of listening to the Whip to calm tempers down!

One leader of a party in the ruling coalition had a dig at the performance of the government in a manner that even the opposition could not have articulated. He accused the government of failure in controlling inflation, the share market scam and rising prices of essentials that has the nation reeling. The Finance Minister was also made the object of particular wrath. His role in the pitiable state of affairs in the share market was attacked with both venom and sarcasm.

Those who spoke that day ended up criticizing the government in a manner is if they were long in waiting for such a chance and was not ready to let it go. For many, the proceedings left no doubt that they were using an opportunity to express their personal frustrations with this government. Some of those who took the lead are senior members of the ruling party and leaders of the coalition whose ministerial aspirations were bypassed when the government was formed after the elections.

It is an open secret of our politics that senior leaders within the ruling party have been encouraging intra-party conflicts since the ruling party came to power out of their personal frustrations. The opposition has been too weak to muster any meaningful pressure on the government. Yet, there have been continuous political disturbances all over the country. Most of these disturbances and agitations have been carried out by the students and other wings of the ruling party with encouragement of these senior leaders. Many attempts of the Prime Minister to rein in the Chatra League have failed. For many, the parliamentary debate that day was proof of truth in the open secret.

What we saw in the parliamentary debate therefore should not fool anyone as signs of democratic behaviour. It has in fact revealed the intra-party conflicts of an unhealthy nature. This state of affairs in the ruling party explains why it has fallen so far behind fulfilling many of its election promises. It is this intra-party conflict that is also largely responsible for the 3/4th majority and the huge mandate the ruling party received in the last elections being wasted.

It has also left many worried. Such conflict within the ruling party has a sad history. It is high time that those in charge in the ruling party should take the parliamentary debate as a wakeup call to resolve intra-party conflict by democratic means to avoid history from repeating itself.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Congress on decline: Should Bangladesh be worried?

Daily Sun
August 21, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

A recent opinion poll carried by India Today should give Bangladesh, particularly its foreign policy makers food for thought and worry. The poll has predicted that the popularity of the Congress led UPA is declining. At the same time, the popularity of its nemesis the BJP led NDA is raising.

The poll figures are not yet dramatic. In the current poll conducted by India Today-Nielsen, the Congress led UPA has dropped from 242-256 seats projection in August last year to 212-222 which is a projected loss of 42 seats from the 259 seats the alliance won in 2009 elections. The consolation is that it is still ahead of the BJP led NDA whose projected progress has been to 174-184 seats in the latest poll which is up from 168-178 since last August polls and 20 seats more than the 159 seats it won in 2009.

However, on analysis, the small consolation for the Congress that the BJP led coalition is still behind withers away for there is a disconcerting trend that is emerging for the UPA. First, the NDA’s appeal to the people that was stagnant for quite some time is finally changing, although the gains are still small. Second, the decline of the UPA is proportionately more. In fact, analysts see a clear shift in the mood of the voters away from the Congress led UPA towards the BJP led NDA.

The trend apart, the reasons behind this shift in voters’ mood is what is should worry the Congress. The Congress led government is seriously bogged down in many issues that are leading to voters’ disenchantment with it. Corruption has become a major issue against the Congress led alliance. The 2Gs telecom scandal that has reportedly caused US$ 39 billion in lost revenue and the incarceration of the Telecommunications Minister Andimuthu Raja has been named as the biggest corruption story of independent India.

Anna Hazare and India’s vibrant media have together ensured that the depth and extent of corruption reaches every corner of India that has also been instrumental in the decline of UPA’s popularity. In fact, Anna Hazari has embarrassed the government to such an extent that the Prime Minister is literally left with a hot potato, not sure how to handle him and the issue of corruption. The scepter of Anna Hazare, many suspects, may not allow the Prime Minister the peace of mind he needs on his forthcoming trip to Bangladesh.

Inflation has mixed with corruption to further erode the confidence of the people in the UPA. The same factor that pushed the NDA in the 2005 elections from power, namely economics ,is now working against the UPA. In 2005, NDA’s slogan “shining India” disenchanted the majority of the rural voters who got poorer in such an India. They refused to believe in shining India and voted the NDA out. This time it is inflation that is uniting voters across India against the ruling UPA. The mood in India is thus shifting from the ruling coalition UPA to the opposition NDA.

The UPA is also beginning to feel the consequences of poor leadership in sustaining its hold on power. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi who has been a major figure in making the Congress popular at the grass roots has lost a lot of her charm. The India Today-Nielsen polls have shown her popularity with the people at only 5% down from a high of 28% when she led the Congress to victory in 2005. Rahul Gandhi has made strides and according to the poll, he is ahead of all others as likely successor of the weak Manmohon Singh on both sides of the political divide.

The only bright spot at the moment for the Congress and its allies according to the India Today poll is the lack of a leader at the national level in the NDA to capitalize on the gains offered to them through the issues of corruption, inflation and lack luster leadership. The tag given by Mr. Advani to Mr. Manmohon Singh as the weakest Prime Minister in Indian history is beginning to harm the UPA’s chances in the next elections because under him, the government is visibly too weak to earn voters’ confidence. Nevertheless, the NDA would need to keep pushing the trend that would not be very easy as it too lacks leadership of national stature. The future at this moment looks assured for neither although the NDA is surely coming back into favour with the voters.

The polls could be a warning call for Bangladesh. It has fully cast its lot on the assumption that India would not just give it its rights on water sharing, on trade and on border issues but also help transform Bangladesh into a regional connectivity hub where even China and Myanmar together with northeast India, Bhutan and Nepal would be in the loop. In anticipation of great things to come, Bangladesh has given India complete assurance on security and written off its land transit card.

The future that the two countries have envisioned has left out totally the prospect of the NDA coming to power in India or the BNP in Bangladesh. In case of India, this issue is less of a problem given India’s strong democratic foundations. In Bangladesh’s case, the whole move would come to a standstill if the BNP comes to power. The BNP has made that clear in no uncertain terms.

However, India’s strong democracy notwithstanding, as far as improving relations with Bangladesh, the BJP could be a difficult customer. Its philosophy is based on supremacy of the Hindu religion where Bangladesh’s Muslim character does not fit naturally. Then there are issues of so-called 20 million illegal Bangladeshis in India that it wants to send back to Bangladesh by force. These are just two important issues but there are a host of others that make the BJP quite a different proposition than the Congress. Given the fact that Bangladesh is highly unlikely to receive fulfillment of Indian promises within Congress’ current term of office, it is not at all unlikely that Bangladesh could be left with a BJP led Government for fulfillment of promises made by the Congress.

The Bangladesh side is not known to have talked to the BJP on improving bilateral relations. On Bangladesh side, the ruling party has left the opposition out of the process of consultations. In fact, the Congress and the Awami League seem to have reached or in the process of reaching decisions for long term goals on the assumption that neither is in any threat of losing power!

On Indian side, no matter whether it is the BJP or Congress, India’s democratic institutions would help protect the country’s interests. It is not the same on our side. We have double faulted. First, we have left the opposition totally out of the equation. Second, we also do not know what would happen to our interests if the BJP forms the government in New Delhi in 3 years’ time. The India Today poll could be a warning call for us for caution although it may have come too late for we have ourselves closed that door or at least the ruling party has done so on behalf of the country.

Those in Bangladesh who are confident that the current Bangladesh-India initiatives would lead to a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations should hope and pray that the India Today poll’s prediction on a change of government in New Delhi turns out to be incorrect.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Ministers, media and ministerial responsibility

As I See It Column
The Independent
August 20, 2011

M. Serajul Islam

A number of Ministers have drawn flak for comments in the media and their insensitiveness to public needs and mood in recent days, adding to a long list of Ministers of this Government who have gone before the media and raised either controversies or have humiliated themselves and the government.

The Commerce Minister asked people to eat less to tackle the twin evils of steep rise in price of essentials and poisoning of foodstuffs and drew anger from the people who are on the edge as a consequence of the Commerce Ministry’s failure to control the twin evils. The Communications Minister likewise has also drawn critical comments from his own party members and the nation on his utter insensitivity on road conditions and road safety and comments on the deaths of Tareque Masud and Mishuk Muneer at a time when the nation has come together in grief.

The Commerce Minister in a public event came up with a unique solution to control price rise of essentials and criminal adulteration of food stuffs by asking people to eat less! By” brilliant” economic logic, he explained to his audience that if people eat less, the traders would have no alternative but to bring prices down. By the same brilliant interpretation of his own perception of economics, he said that if people eat less, then those who poison our food stuff would also be forced to stop adulteration!

People wondered whether the Minister was in a mood of humour when he asked people to eat less. If that was the case, someone should tell the Minister that making humour in a public speech is a natural talent that he does not have. If he was indeed humoring, he has embarrassed himself and the government. If it was not humour, what he said was gibberish and did not make any sense at all. Probably, there is a potential Noble Prize in Economics waiting here if the Minister could write down what he said to his audience in the form of a thesis!

If it was not humour that the Minister was attempting, then he did not show that he cared for people’s sensitivity and miseries. The adulteration has reached a limit where the Government’s credibility and his, are at stake. As for the rising prices of essentials in the market, people are reeling under it. His political wisdom should have alerted him to avoid the twin subjects because one of the major issues that swept his party to power was the promise of controlling the upward trend of prices of essentials.

The Communications Minister thought that all the concern about conditions of roads was much ado about nothing. The media refused to leave him at that. The private TV channels showed video footages of the dilapidated highways. The parliamentary committee on communications, other Ministers, media and the entire nation in tandem voiced their utter disgust over the inefficiency of the Minister together with charges of corruption against him and his Ministry in a manner unheard of in Bangladesh’s history. The Minister tried shifting responsibility by blaming, first the last BNP government and then the Finance Ministry for not providing adequate funds that angered people more. The Finance Minister retorted by coming live on TV to dismiss the accusation angrily as nonsense.

Then came the deaths of Mishuk Muneer and Tareque Masud that numbed and shocked the nation. The Communications Minister failed to understand the nation’s mood or was totally unconcerned by it. He visited Tareque Masud’s injured widow to tell her that the driver of the microbus involved in the fatal accident was at fault. To add to the Government’s woes, just before the accident, the Shipping Minister requested the Commerce Minister to issue driving license to 2,700 applicants’ by-passing road tests. When the Communications Minister was questioned by the media about this request after the deaths of Mishuk Muneer and Tareque Masud, he again failed to understand public mood and gave an answer that angered the people more. Mishuk Muneer’s widow tore apart the Ministers in a manner that resonated deep in the hearts of all.

These faux passes and insensitivities of the Ministers that have crossed all limits are not doing the image of the Government any good. It is time that the Ministers realize that speaking extempore before the media is a talent that does not come naturally to most of them. It would be much better for them and the Government if they prepare properly before facing the media and read out prepared texts or let their bureaucrats to speak on behalf of their Ministries. Their love for media exposure, particularly the television is revealing a very unprofessional government. It is only the Prime Minister’s kind heart that has kept many of them in their posts. However it is past time for the Prime Minister to take a measure of the mood of the people because between the Commerce, Communications and Shipping Ministers, the fine line of tolerance has been passed by a long margin.

There is a more serious issue here that is being overlooked in the context of what our Ministers do, namely the concept of ministerial responsibility. In a parliamentary democracy, a Minister is individually responsible to the parliament for his/her conduct and for his/her duties and responsibilities. When a Minister fails to perform or causes embarrassment to the Government, he/she bears responsibility and resigns. This is the convention worldwide in a parliamentary democracy.

Unfortunately, in our parliamentary system, it is the presidential mindset that works. The “convention” that we have established is that Ministers are individually and collectively responsible to the Prime Minister, not the parliament. The case of the Communications Minister is relevant in this context. With the nation in uproar for his removal, he seems to be least bothered because the Prime Minister is unwilling to acknowledge the public mood.

The Ministers are behaving in any manner they like. They do so because there is no ministerial responsibility in our system. If there was even a minimum of it, the Communications and Commerce Ministers would have lost their jobs for their utter disregard to public interests and sensitivities together with their inability to run their Ministries. It is difficult to understand from where his strength comes and why the Prime Minister should bear the responsibility of his inefficiency and disregard for public interests and sentiments as she has to eventually, come election time.

It is wake up time for the Government’s credibility to over-see what Minister say to the media. It is equally a wake up time for it to introduce some form of ministerial responsibility for sake of democracy, particularly parliamentary democracy. The words of Mishuk Muneer’s widow should move this government to do something drastic and urgently unless it is totally immune to the public mood and stop the murderers on our highways by holding the law enforcing agencies to task who are either conniving with the murderers or looking the other way. She should also ensure the responsibility of the Minister of Communications for keeping our roads murder-friendly.

Readers should spare a moment and contemplate at this moment of national crisis that in this country, one gets 10 years jail sentence for killing a tiger and 3 years for killing innocent people on the road! Why then would the fake drivers care about how many people they kill for the law and law enforcers are on their side to get them away with murder! Is human life cheaper anywhere else in the world?

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

Sunday, August 14, 2011

JITCO agreement with Japan: Wasting a pro-worker programme

Daily Sun
August 14, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Japan stands clearly above the rest as our development partner. It has been the single largest contributor to our development efforts in a country wise break down of our development partners since our independence. Its aid, most of which is eventually made into grants, has gone to the sectors where it is needed most, namely economic infrastructure building and human resources development.

Unfortunately, Japan’s contribution to Bangladesh is seldom spoken in public. The Japanese are too sophisticated and cultured to talk about themselves. We are also not good as a nation in appreciating friends. Hence, most people in the country think that our western development partners do more for us than Japan.

It is not just lack of appreciation that should now worry those who are aware of what Japan means to Bangladesh. It is what we are doing with an excellent Japanese programme of economic cooperation that has now become an issue. It has been reported in the press recently that recruiting agencies have cheated many in the name of the JITCO programme run by Japan International Technical Cooperation Organization (JITCO), a government funded organization with shared jurisdiction of 5 ministries including Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice.

We signed the JITCO agreement in 2005 during my tenure in Japan as Ambassador. There were a few thousand illegal immigrants in Japan when I arrived there in 2002. Almost all of them were working in small and medium scale enterprises much to the satisfaction of their Japanese employers. Unfortunately, the Japanese Immigration was then nabbing the illegal immigrants and sending them home. Bangladeshi illegal immigrants were easy to catch because of ethnicity.

It was during this period that I met a few SME owners who were employing the illegal immigrants. They told me of their sadness of losing the Bangladeshi workers who they thought were very hard working and honest to whom many of them left their enterprises to run. They suggested to me that our Government should sign the JITCO agreement that would allow our workers entry to Japan legally for a limited period under the JITCO programme.

The JITCO programme brings workers from the developing countries in 60 small and medium enterprises for one year as a trainee and 2 years as an apprentice. After 3 years, the workers are sent back home to use the experiences gained in Japanese SMEs in their own countries. This transfer of technology through imparting training to workers of the developing countries forms the philosophical basis of the JITCO programme. There are many other attractive elements in the JITCO programme that makes it very attractive for any country that has entered the JITCO programme.

A worker under a JITCO programme is not required to spend any money for entering the programme. Japanese SMEs who work in the JITCO programme and are called receiving organizations (RO) work with organizations in country sending the workers called the sending organizations (SO). Between the two, workers are identified. Once this is done, the entire responsibility of receiving the workers in Japan is that of the receiving organization. The RO pays for any training the workers need in the sending country. It also pays for the tickets of the workers. Once in Japan, the workers’ accommodation, health insurance and related expenses are all looked after by the RO, of course with the relevant amounted deducted from the pay.

The RO even ensures that an amount of money is paid to their families for their welfare as long as the trainee/workers stay in Japan. The financial benefit for workers on their return home after 3 years under the JITCO programme was somewhere between Taka 15 to Taka 20 lakhs in savings calculated in 2005 when Bangladesh signed the agreement. When the advantage of receiving world class training for free is considered with these advantages, the JITCO programme’s value can be seen as truly in a class of its own.

The JITCO program is clearly not a manpower issue because Japan, except for limited selective categories, prohibits by law any manpower import to the country. In fact when I was negotiating the JITCO agreement, I was clearly told by the Japanese side that two things must be ensured without fail. First, no manpower/recruiting agencies would come anywhere near the programme. Second, the workers under the JITCO programme would not be required to pay any money to come to Japan.

Unless, the Japanese Government has amended JITCO regulations, our Government seems to have failed in both. It has given permission to a good number of recruiting agencies that are manpower agencies in a different name, thus violating a fundamental principle of the JITCO programme. At the same time, these recruiting agencies have started to charge and fleece prospective workers as they are in the habbit of doing.

The JITCO programme since 2005 has been mishandled by last BNP Government as well as the CG. It does not look like the present one is doing the right thing either. The programme has such potentials that it is indeed sad that it is being wasted because either those handling it are not aware of the nature of the programme or the nexus of corruption so endemic in sending our workers abroad is getting the upper hand in the JITCO programme.

To bring JITCO back to the rails, the concerned Government Ministry must do a few things immediately. First, establish that JITCO programme is not manpower business but a training programme. Second, disseminate information through the media that for going to Japan under the JITCO programme, no one has to pay anyone any money at all. Third, in place of the recruiting agencies, encourage and appoint training institutes to come to the JITCO programme as sending organizations. They may not make the amount of money manpower agencies make by sending our workers abroad but there is a substantial financial incentive in the programme for them from the receiving organizations.

The underlying importance of JITCO programme apart from the free world class training a huge amount of money as savings to boot it offers our workers is a futuristic one. Japan’s population is declining. Increasingly, it will face shortage of manpower at some stages in the future, shortages in sectors where Japanese are not interested to work, for example the SMEs. When that door opens for manpower export to Japan, countries that have presence of workers in programmes such as JITCO would naturally get preference. This is an additional reason why we need to make the JITCO programme successful.

Unfortunately, in 6 years, we have but sent only a handful of workers to Japan under the JITCO programme against many thousands we could have sent. We are wasting a goose that lays golden eggs; in fact we are killing the goose. It is sad because this is a programme that gives the migrant workers so many benefits in a system where they are otherwise victimized.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

On our test cricketers’ manners and playing abilities

The Independent, August 13, 2011
As I See It Column
M. Serajul Islam

I was bewildered when I read an interview of Tamim Iqbal on internet after the end of the 4th days play with Bangladesh needing 263 to in with 7 wickets left in the one off Test match in Zimbabwe. The interview was punched with arrogance and bad manners. His confidence that his team would win the 375 runs target was highly misplaced and spoken out of ignorance.

His attitude towards some of the Zimbabwean cricketers was insulting and subjective. I am not sure on what Tamim based his haughty and arrogant comments. True he has played some outstanding test innings and has won the Wisden’s Test Player of the Year award. Nevertheless, he has surely not yet attained the position to speak disparagingly of his opponents. He needs to be told that when one attains class, one also learns to respect.

His insulting comment on the Zimbabwean bowler Vitori whom he called “ordinary” was irresponsible to say the least. Vitori was a key bowler who was responsible for Bangladesh’s poor show in the first innings. Other than this unbelievable comment, Vitori who was a debutant in the Test won the accolade of everybody. As a new comer to test and first class cricket, he showed class that Bangladesh’s vastly experienced bowlers could not.

Zimbabwe outclassed Bangladesh in all departments of the game. The margin of defeat was a big one and given the fact that Zimbabwe declared its second innings with only 5 wickets down, a damning one too. It should shame the Bangladesh players who should apologize for letting the country down. They have demonstrated their lack of ability for playing the larger version of the game. The team’s management appears to have no control over the team and the players play and talk as they want!

It is not first time that Tamim has shown arrogance in the media. It is again not Tamim alone who has done so. Captain Saquib was also recently in the news for his comments on former test players and his views of selection of the Bangladesh test team. Ability backed on results and performance with arrogance makes some sense. In case of Bangladesh cricketers, it is poor ability and disgraceful results that is mixed with their arrogance. Hence, in such arrogance they just not humiliate themselves but as they wear the Bangladesh cap, the country as well. The cricketers are on the Board’s payroll and therefore there subject to a code of conduct. Surely this is not being applied. It is time for the Board to wake up.

The Zimbabweans left no one watching any doubt that it was a test match they were playing. Tamim, Shahriar and surprisingly Kayes played the Test like a one day match. In fact, Tamim and Shahriar played it in the T20 mode! When the Zimbabweans dangled the carrot of a highly unlikely victory target of 375 in 4 sessions, the gullible team fell for it like they have been doing this all the time unaware that it was a target that was chased for a won only on 5 previous occasions in test history! The pitch was docile and the Zimbabwean attack by no means unplayable. Common sense should have dictated the Bangladesh team to play for a draw that was achievable. Yet Bangladesh opted for chasing victory and lasted a little over 2 sessions!

In the first innings, Shahriar was guilty of playing the most irresponsible innings one can imagine. It looked like he had a flight to catch! True he scored 50 but he looked like getting out with every shot. When a one down player was playing like that, why did the team management not send him a word of caution? While the batsmen scored some runs, the bowlers were innocuous. In fact Tamim should have had a few caustic remarks for his team’s bowlers instead of offending his opponent’s bowlers who not only bowled better but also proved they were better by winning handsomely.

It was however good to see Ashraful play with some common sense, at last. One hopes that after spending time in the wilderness, he has learnt a lesson or two; that genius is one percent inspiration and 99% perspiration. In fact, this perspiration thing should be ingrained in the brains of all our batsmen from getting swollen headed after playing an innings or two of merit.

However what is urgently necessary for our Test cricket team is to adopt heroes and draw inspiration from them. Two names come instantly in mind. The first is Sachin Tendulkar. He should be adopted as a hero to learn the meaning of humility. With 51 test centuries and nearly 15,000 test runs, he behaves like one who has still achieved nothing! Imagine Tamim in Tendulkar’s shoes! Bangladesh cricketers should follow Tendulkar to understand how someone with such great achievements can stay so humble. His humility has given his greatness the extra aura.

The second cricketer that Bangladesh cricketers, particularly our batsmen should adopt as a hero is Pakistan’s former test opening batsman Hanif Mohammed. They need him to appreciate the value of defense and crease occupation to learn to draw by avoiding defeat. Bangladesh test cricketers have convinced themselves that test cricket is one day cricket where a draw is not an option! This explains why out of 64 tests they played; they lost 56, won 3 and drew the rest! If they had Hanif as a hero, they could have drawn many more tests and saved themselves from humiliation. Playing attacking shots before learning how to defend is like attempting to run without learning how to walk properly.

Test cricket’s regulators, the International Cricket Council (ICC) has decided to give the Bangladesh test team respite by heavily cutting on their test schedules. This has been done no doubt because of their poor performance in Test cricket. The Bangladesh Cricket Board should now go back to the drawing board and evaluate why the team has achieved such a humiliating Test record. Tamim’s interview could help them in finding answers. He said “if we do not do anything silly, Bangladesh will win”. Bangladesh did not win the Harare test because the players played downright silly cricket. In fact, they have played silly cricket all along which is why they have piled a world record of losing test matches.

The new coach Stuart Law could do himself and Bangladesh cricket a world of good if he could put some common sense into the cricketers. For a starter, he could set for them two mutually exclusive modes, the Test mode and the One Day mode and punish those who mix the modes. There are of course a host of other issues that not he but the Board should do, like prepare the cricketers for Test cricket with good domestic programmes which is just not there now. It is sheer stupidity to pay test cricket without preparation.

The writer is a retired career diplomat and former Ambassador to Japan.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

New India-USA alliance and concerns of Bangladesh

Daily Sun
August 7, 2011
M. Serajul

During her recent visit to India, US Secretary of State Mrs. Hillary Clinton gave a very important speech on the shape of things to come, in US’ perception, in international politics in South, Central, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. She categorically mentioned that “much of the history of the 21st century would be written in Asia” and in that, the government and the people of India would lead. She sought for her country a partnership in India’s emergence as a world power.

By any analysis, this is a grandiose vision. It places India in a position where USA is seeking India’s attention in world affairs and not the other way round. In fact, reading the speech between the lines, one is left with the indelible impression that the Secretary has gone out of her way not just to make the Indian government happy but all Indians. Towards that, she praised the Indian Election Commission for becoming the “global gold standard for running elections”.

Some would entirely agree with the Secretary’s vision. Some would want to raise a few questions while agreeing with the vision either partially or even to a large extent. Then there are others who see in China a Super Power in waiting who would reject the whole basis of the Secretary’s vision on the ground that she has ignored China’s role in the emergence of Asia on the world stage.

The speech nevertheless underscores unequivocally India’s importance and emergence in world affairs. While the idea of the US and India forming a new alliance for the 21st century may or may not interest a lot of people not in the region or thereabouts, for Bangladesh and other countries in the region this is an alliance that needs to be examined at length, particularly what prospects it can bring them or problems it can cause them.

In her eagerness to woo India, Mrs. Hillary Clinton has given South Asia to India as its sphere of influence. She has also encouraged India to become a leader in Central, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. It is in suggesting for India a role in Southeast Asia and Pacific that the Secretary has brought China into the equation even without mentioning its name. In her entire vision for Asia statement, she has not mentioned China by name. Yet, the entire vision is shaped by US’ efforts to contain China from dominating Southeast Asia and the Pacific where it is pursuing its interests aggressively.

The praises for India are therefore intentional to take India on board to contain China in the Pacific that the US considers its backyard and in Southeast Asia. The vision statement of the Secretary has been in preparation for quite some time. It is with this vision of an Indo-US alliance aimed at China that the United States under President Bush made efforts to win India’s friendship. Towards that, the US helped India to become a member of the prestigious Nuclear Suppliers’ Group that brought India back from its pariah status for building the nuclear bomb and opened its door to enter into civil nuclear deals with the nuclear states, including the US, for peaceful use of nuclear energy.

The new Indo-US alliance should cause a few worries for Bangladesh in the context of the initiatives it has taken for a paradigm shift in its hitherto contentious bilateral relations with India. In expectation of great things from India on its long standing grievances on water sharing, trade deficit, land border and maritime issues, Bangladesh has given to India land transit from its mainland to its northeastern states and a full guarantee for its security concerns. In other words, Bangladesh has bargained off its playing hands for Indian promises.

The promises have not been just resolution of its long demands on water and the rest but on becoming a hub for regional connectivity. Bangladesh has been promised or so our government has been led to believe that roads from Bangladesh would not just go to India’s impoverished Seven Sisters but also to Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and China. The connectivity promise would bring Bangladesh great economic fortunes.

The Indo-US vision could be a hindrance in fulfillment of this promise. If China is the perceived threat of this vision, would India be interested in linking China to the Indian northeastern states? The northeastern states are still very unstable and insurgencies there in which China in the past played an active part have still not been fully controlled. Then again, China and India still have very major land related issues involving huge areas unresolved over which the two countries fought a war in 1962. With all these problems, it would not be very wise for Bangladesh to believe that India would help Bangladesh become the regional connectivity hub with China in the loop.

Without China, the promise of rich economic dividends accruing to Bangladesh from connectivity does not appear likely. India’s northeast states are very poor with many formidable obstacles, many involving the states themselves. While rest of India has grown fast enough to attract the world, the growth rate in the Seven Sisters is in the low single digit. It is not that these States have been waiting for Bangladesh’s land transit to develop. It is time for Bangladesh to look deeper. The reasons for India seeking the land transit to the northeast states may not be all economic.

In a recent seminar in Dhaka, Indian delegates cautioned Bangladesh not to expect too much from connectivity to avoid disappointment. Perhaps they know things that our foreign policy makers do not, like for example the complex nature of the Seven Sisters. The agreement signed by the two countries during the recent visit of the Indian Home Minister on the joint border management deserves more scrutiny. With the border fenced and sealed and the control in Indian hands, what is India afraid of? A joint patrolling with India will allow Indian armed troops inside Bangladesh soil that is not a good thing at all. The troops will bring back memories of Felani and many hundreds of others who have been shot and killed by Indian BSF in cold blood and encourage anti-India feelings. Why could the Indian Home Minister not assure Bangladesh that no more innocent deaths would occur instead of telling us that Delhi has issued instructions against such killings?

The US Secretary of State’s vision statement of a new era of Indo-US relations thus needs to be examined in the context of the government’s initiatives with India lest we are caught on the wrong foot. We need to be cautious about an Indo-US alliance that could distance us from China that is more assured of becoming the next Super Power than India writing much of the history of 21st century.

The writer is a former career diplomat and retired Ambassador to Japan.

How democratic is Bangladesh?

The Independent
As I See It Column
August 6th, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

If length of struggle is a major factor for establishing democracy in a society and country, then surely we should been at the top of such a list of democratic countries. We started this struggle to get rid of British colonialism and establish Pakistan in the 1940s. We then struggled against the Pakistani regime to establish democracy in what was then East Pakistan. In 1971, we created the independent nation of Bangladesh through a bloody war of liberation to achieve a democratic state.

Independence hardly helped the cause of democracy because in the last 40 years, we have continued this struggle. There were military regimes to fight against that made sense. What did not make sense is even when governments have been elected democratically, the opposition rejected the electoral verdict and have continued to fight against democratically elected governments to establish democracy! In fact, the struggle is still going on. The opposition BNP is leading this struggle, fighting to overthrow the ruling Awami League that has been elected freely and fairly.

Surprising as BNP’s struggle to establish democracy by overthrowing a democratically elected government may appear, it is not doing what has not been done in Bangladesh before. In fact, the BNP is merely carrying forward a tradition established by the Awami League that had carried out “democratic struggles” under both the last two BNP Governments that were also elected freely and fairly by the people. In between, the BNP also “struggled” for democracy when the AL was elected in 1996 in an election that too was held freely and fairly.

There has to be an explanation to this paradox. Indeed there is although it is very surprising that our civil society that has a major responsibility in explaining such matters has not tried to explain how it is possible for a country to struggle for establishment of democracy for so long and still be as far away from such an objective as it was when it started the journey many decades ago. More importantly, the civil society and researchers of our politics and governments have also failed to explain how there can be a fight for democracy against a government that is in power with people’s approval given in elections that have been free and fair.

The explanation lies in the nature of our politics. Take for instance the recent amendment brought to the constitution, the fifteenth amendment. The opposition parties that carry with it the support of half of the people of Bangladesh if not the majority have not been a part of the process of the amendment. The argument that they were invited but did not come is not one that will serve the cause of democracy because one fundamental principle of democracy is that it must reflect majority will. In constitutional maters, the majority is absolutely indispensible to give credibility.

Yet the ruling party went ahead and amended the constitution. When the opposition criticized it and rather bluntly and crudely, there were demands from the ruling party to try the critics on charges of treason because the 15th amendment incorporated such a provision. This provision makes our constitution unique because no constitution anywhere has anything like it. By this unique provision, the 15th amendment has taken away the right of criticism and dissent that are fundamental to establishing democracy. Those supporting to stop criticisms of the constitution an act of treason should spare a moment and think that poor England, that has given democracy to the world, does not even have a written constitution!

Over the last 2 decades, the two mainstream parties have shown zero tolerance to opposition and its views on any issue concerning the nation and its politics when it has been in power. In power, the ruling party has played the zero-sum game, rejecting any claim of the opposition parties to be a part of the process of governance. The absence of tolerance and the preference in the ruling party for the zero-sum game takes away from our politics two fundamental requirements for achieving democracy namely tolerance and the spirit of sharing.

The nature of politics is thus a major obstacle to the establishment of democracy in the country because it has also impacted adversely upon the building of institutions that are integral to making a democratic system sustainable. For example, as a parliamentary democracy, it is the parliament that should have been the most important institution for a democratic government in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, because of the nature of partisan politics, this institution that is the heart of parliamentary democracy is becoming weaker with successive elections.

A weak parliament that is getting weaker is driving politics to the streets in Bangladesh’s eternal struggle for democracy. To reverse the trend, the urgent focus should be to find a way out of the controversy now current in our politics about holding the next election. The two mainstream parties must find out a system of conducting the next parliamentary elections that does not allow partisanship to breed and in which the opposition parties have their concurrence. The ruling party’s prescription for next parliamentary elections to be held under it as an interim government has been rejected by the BNP. If the ruling party goes ahead with elections under an interim government, the country will have a lame duck parliament; a government without legitimacy and the country’s pursuit for democracy further away.

Therefore the parliament must be made functional by ending the controversy over the caretaker government versus the interim government. At the same time, serious and urgent consideration must also be given to change the system of elections. In a country where the two mainstream parties are divided almost half and half in their support among the people, the present system of once past the post is totally out of tune with the times and helps sustain the conflicting nature of our politics in the streets. For example, in 2001, with less than 1% difference in votes cast, the BNP won nearly 200 seats while the AL about 64! Likewise, with 34% of the votes cast in its favour in the last elections, the BNP just won 34 seats.

It is time for introducing a system of elections where the seats in parliament would allow the parties a proportionate number of seats. In our political culture, it is not a good idea at all for democracy to send a party to power with 2/3 or a 3/4th majority. It makes the winning party lose track of reality; that the parliamentary majority is nothing more than a virtual one; that amongst the people, the two mainstream parties are evenly supported. A proportionate number of seats would give the opposition a much larger number of seats to encourage them to use the parliament instead of the streets for the rights of the people and make the party in power responsible. For sake of democracy, we need to introduce some form of proportional representation to bring reality to the virtual nature of our politics.

Unfortunately, in the struggle mode for establishment of democracy, no one is concerned that the factors that would establish and sustain democracy do not exist here. Hence our struggle for democracy does not look like to end in any foreseeable future. Till then we would be fooling ourselves if we claim that we are a democratic country.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Indira Gandhi: A historic debt finally settled

Daily Sun
July 31st., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The decision of the Bangladesh Government to award Bangladesh’s highest civilian honour, the “Bangladesh Freedom Honour” to late Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi is an excellent one though taken many decades belatedly. Her leadership in those tumultuous days of 1971 was a major reason for Bangladesh achieving its independence in just nine months. With Bangabandhu incarcerated in Pakistan and the Bangladesh Government in exile too inexperienced in international politics, it could have been quite a different story for Bangladesh without Indira Gandhi on our side.

The crime committed by the Pakistan army on unarmed people of Bangladesh in 1971 was carried out openly for the world to see. The world knew that the Awami League had won a free and fair election that the Pakistani military junta overturned. Nevertheless, those were different times. In the era of the Cold War, brutalities on civilians by the military was quiet acceptable. What was then not acceptable was any move aimed at breaking a country or challenging a government in power. Secession or rebelion was then totally unacceptable. Hence, although at the level of the people, Bangladesh drew world attention, governments everywhere did very little to stop the Bangladesh genocide.

In 1971, people in three countries rose against their respective governments. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese People’s Liberation Front rebelled against the Sri Lankan Government. In Nigeria, the Biafrans attempted to secede from Nigeria. In Bangladesh, we rose against the Pakistani military government. The first two were brutally suppressed with the world watching silently to protect Sri Lanka and Nigeria’s sovereign right to deal with its internal problems. The Bangladesh case was different. The minority led by the military junta threw aside the elections that would have allowed the majority in East Pakistan to govern and instead subjected them to genocide with the world looking the other way.

There were other major differences. In India, Bangladesh had a staunch supporter that was ready to go to war against Pakistan as it did eventually to stop Pakistan’s atrocities. In Mrs. Indira Gandhi, there was an Indian leader who was ready to take the world in her stride for the cause of Bangladesh. Her leadership for Bangladesh’s cause in which the United States supported Pakistan earned her the wrath of President Nixon who, in disgust, referred to her as the “witch” but established her as a statesman of world stature.

She deftly but forcefully made the Bangladesh cause known abroad. She addressed the United Nations, toured Europe and even the United States. In Europe and the United States, she failed to motivate the governments because of Cold War politics but established the Bangladesh case for freedom and Pakistan’s genocide, with their peoples. In her interviews given to the TV stations in the United States she was accused of interfering in Pakistan’s internal affairs. Her interviewers and critics were silenced in the manner she explained Pakistan military’s atrocities that caused 10 million Bangladeshis to seek refuge in India for fear of their lives.

Bangladesh thus owes Mrs. Indira Gandhi immense gratitude that it never paid while she was alive. Therefore, the award given to her posthumously was one that the whole nation has welcomed. It was heartening that the BNP also stood behind the Government’s decision. The ceremony to award Mrs. Gandhi the honour was given great respectability by the fact that Mrs. Sonia Gandhi came to Dhaka to accept this honour on behalf of her mother-in-law was a noble one. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi has established herself as a politician of conscience, of wisdom, where she has sacrificed the lures of political power to serve the cause of her party and country.

Mrs. Indira Gandhi is being honoured at a time when Bangladesh and India are at a historical cross road. After decades of un-stable and often un-friendly bilateral relations, the two countries are moving in the direction where they could regain the friendship and camaraderie that brought them together in 1971 that was lost somewhere down the road of history. It is a time when Bangladesh has made the first moves by conceding to two of India’s major foreign policy priorities, namely a land transit from its mainland to the seven northeastern states and its security concerns. India has also shown its willingness to match Bangladesh’s hands.

Bangladesh is now expectantly looking forward to India to meet its legitimate demands on waters sharing, trade and land and maritime boundary related issues when the Indian Prime Minister comes here for his official visit in early September. Indian Foreign Minister’s visit early this month promised a lot. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi during her visit also raised Bangladesh’s hopes by the genuine affection with which she spoke about Bangladesh and its people and the need for India and Bangladesh to regain the friendship of 1971.

However, good words for Bangladesh alone may not rekindle the old friendship. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi would need to put the full weight of her power and position to take on board a bureaucracy and political leadership in India for a new era of Bangladesh-India relationship. She should take note of the warm feelings that the opposition BNP has shown for her visit and for her wisdom and credibility. In this context, she should also bear in mind that the opposition in Bangladesh has still not been taken on board about the future of Bangladesh-India relations. In her brief but highly successful visit, those who arranged it could have helped the cause of bilateral relations if they would have arranged a meeting between her and Begum Khaleda Zia.

Most important of all, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi must remind those in charge in India to win hearts and minds in Bangladesh for sustainable and mutually beneficial bilateral relations. Thus far, India has done little for murder of Felani and hundreds of others by the trigger happy BSF over which Bangladeshis across the political divide are deeply aggrieved. The 1792 mile long fence that India is building on Bangladesh-India border at a cost of US$ 1.4 billion that will be completed next year is another issue with which India is losing hearts and minds in Bangladesh.

In an article on Foreign Affairs’ July/August, 2011 issue titled “Fortress India”, the authors wrote that although India by next year will successfully fence off every available crossing point on Bangladesh-India border, alleged mass migration will nevertheless not stop because of blatant corruption among the Indian agencies that guard the border. The head of Indian human rights organization named Masum has said “entire villages can cross the border with the right pay-offs.” The article thrashes Indian arguments on the fence that it considers as a major hindrance in regaining the spirit of 1971.

The award to Mrs. Gandhi settles a historical debt of the people of Bangladesh to the people of India. With the land transit and security assurances granted to India already, there is little left for Bangladesh to do to make India happy. It is now India’s turn to reciprocate. In this context, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi can make the difference because there are still lingering doubts in Bangladesh whether Indian politicians and less so, its bureaucrats, are going to do the needful unless someone with authority and respect in India interferes on Bangladesh’s behalf. This is where Mrs. Sonia Gandhi can play a historical role in Bangladesh-India relations as Mrs. Indira Gandhi had done in 1971.

The writer is a retired career diplomat and a former Ambassador to Japan

Can constitution keep military out of politics?

The Independent
As I see it column
July 30 July, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The role of the military in politics has been debated at length in recent times. There seems to be a consensus, something unusual in Bangladesh that the military must not be allowed in politics under any circumstances. Many who have expressed their views in newspaper articles and on TV talk shows have strongly recommended constitutional guarantees to make any future attempts by the military to capture political power punishable by death.

The truth is somewhat different from the consensus that has emerged because as water finds its own level by the law of nature; the military intervenes naturally when politics fails. Constitutional guarantees are futile in this context. A country that is based on democratic foundations is never in threat of military take over. India next door is the ideal example where the military even in a fit of fantasy or madness cannot think that they can have a crack at political power. In Pakistan, because of the absence of any institutional base for democratic politics, the country has never been able to rid itself of direct or indirect military rule in the six decades it has been independent.

Bangladesh has had mixed fortunes in the context of the military’s intervention in politics. In its war of liberation in 1971, the military led the war from the front under the guidance of the political leaders. In fact, even in his state of incarceration, the military gave Bangabandhu’s clarion call for independence the utmost importance and respect and showed their readiness to sacrifice their lives for translating his call for independence in to reality.

It was the failure of politics and conspiracy of politicians that led to the political change in August 1975 in which the military officers who were involved in the dastardly and heinous acts were inspired not by any support from their rank and file but from the politicians. Again, in 1981, the military led by General Ershad received his support and inspiration from the leading members of the civil bureaucracy and support of political parties opposed to the ruling party that General Ershad overthrew.

The nature of politics during the final days of the last BNP Government did not leave doubts in any one’s mind that the politicians were again inviting the military to interfere in politics. It was General Moyeen’s misplaced confidence in his own abilities and his desire for giving the civilians a vision of democracy that hastened his exit. Of course there were a host of other factors that paved his early exit from fulfilling his ambitions of staying in power to teach the politicians how to make Bangladesh democratic.

Despite all the interest and discussion centering on the need to make provisions in the constitution to put the fear of God in the hearts of the military from taking over political power, the institutional building that is the best insurance against military’s intervention is weakening. The current parliament is weaker than the last one and has become almost dys-functional. The civil bureaucracy, whose role in keeping the military from interfering in politics is critical, has also become weaker. Politics is sliding towards the unknown.

With all the arguments against the military’s intervention in politics notwithstanding, it must not be forgotten that the military is the best organized institution in the country and has muscles. It must also not be forgotten that they are patriots and nationalists as well. Hence if politics deteriorates and threatens the state in future, it would be foolhardy to expect that the military would be discouraged by the constitution and whatever provisions therein from taking over political power.

Nevertheless, Bangladesh cannot afford military intervention anymore, having lost many good years to military rule. The military, wherever it has intervened in politics, has ultimately stood between that country and progress. They come with the excuse of a crisis and end up staying in power long after the crisis is over. By overstaying in power, they hamper the growth of democratic institutions without which sustainable growth and development is impossible to serve their interests and not the nation’s. This is why every country threatened by the military is eager to find ways to keep it out of politics.

The answer to keep the military out of politics is in politics itself. However, despite all the talk of the need to deal with the military and even to threaten them with death should they make attempts to capture political power, there is doubt whether the mood of the people is at all reaching the military. It is politics again that keeps our military interested to interfere in political power. Both the mainstream parties, despite of what they now say openly, have played politics with the military, allowing it privileges that are far beyond what they deserve, just to keep them happy.

It is sad that Bangladesh that became independent in 1971 for a democratic society and government has had so many vital years taken away by military rule. Today, the country has little threat from external enemy but continues to give its military disproportionate importance. The enemy is inside the country in poverty, hunger, diseases and internal civil disorder, areas where the military has no role. The civil bureaucracy is the government structure with the responsibility for tackling the internal enemy that has been kept deliberately weak.

To rule out any future attempt or attempts by the military in politics, the way out is not in the constitution but in improving the quality of politics so that political power is exercised within the limits of the law. It is equally important that governments are changed through elections that provide a level playing ground for all political parties. At the same time, it is essential to strengthen the civil bureaucracy by giving it the same privileges and perks as the military bureaucracy if not more and making it politically neutral. At present, the civil bureaucracy with a major role in nation building is not even a poor cousin of the pampered military bureaucracy.

Democracy is the antidote to military’s intervention in politics. Bipartisanship in politics on national issues is what establishes a democratic government. That bipartisanship in politics on national issues is what the country should seek and not constitutional guarantees to keep the military from having any political ambitions.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt