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