Friday, August 30, 2013

On the UN Secretary General’s phone calls


The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has given hope to the people of Bangladesh for a way out of an impending political disaster of grave consequences that many are apprehending would engulf Bangladesh if the two mainstream parties fail to reach an understanding over the issue of holding the next national elections. He made phone calls to Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia and urged both to start discussions over the political stalemate. 

The phone calls are not a new initiative. The UN Secretary General had earlier sent his Assistant Secretary for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez-Toranco to Dhaka in May to urge the two leaders to start talking for a way out of the nation’s problem over elections. He made his calls after that initiative did not produce any results and meantime, the two parties had pushed politics further towards the brink. In fact, just days before the calls, the two leaders had made the public statements that sent shock waves down the nation’s spine. The Prime Minister said she would not budge an inch from her party’s stand while the Leader of the Opposition said she would start a street movement that would blow the other away.

The Secretary General’s phone calls have raised hope because after these calls, the two parties are showing inclination for talks, albeit from their respective entrenched positions. As readers would recollect, the Prime Minister’s call for not budging an inch was followed by her Secretary General’s statement that there was no question anymore of talks with the opposition. There is now a shift from such a stand in the Awami League that is a positive sign. The BNP, after its decisive victories in the city corporation elections, would not need much encouragement for talks because it is hoping some power/s would intervene so that Bangladesh would have national elections in which it would be able to participate.

Ban Ki-moon’s initiative has been endorsed fully by Ambassadors/High Commissioners of Bangladesh’s development partners when they met the EC. Earlier, the Chinese Ambassador in what was a rare diplomatic initiative also urged the two mainstream parties on the same lines. Thus the countries that have a stake in Bangladesh have reached a consensus that Bangladesh must have free, fair, transparent and “inclusive” general elections where all political parties would participate to save the country from its current political crisis. Only India has not yet expressed its views on the international consensus.

Within the country, independent polls have suggested that up to 90% of the people also want that the next national elections to be participated by all political parties to save the country from sliding towards great political uncertainty. They share the fears of the BNP that the playing field would not be level if elections were held under party government from a few obvious facts. First, the civil and police administrations – key institutions for fair elections – have been totally politicized in favour of the ruling party. Second, the speeches and body language of the ruling party suggest that it does not intend to leave power. In fact, party leaders have stated in public that it would remain in power indefinitely under the 15th amendment if elections were not held!

The majority of the people also feel that the Election Commission is not strong and independent to hold elections freely, fairly and to the satisfaction of all the major political parties. A few things that the EC has done recently, particularly with relation to Article 91(E) of the RPO have further convinced the people that it would be unfair to expect the BNP to accept that the EC would be able to deliver national elections with a level playing field. They also have not forgotten that when the situation was less contentious in 1996, the AL had refused to take part in the same type of elections that it is now asking the BNP to participate. The Secretary General’s initiative has come at a very opportune and critical time for Bangladesh. His task would be to encourage the AL and the BNP to come to understanding where both would be able to take part in the next general elections. 

He would need to develop a framework without which his initiative would not succeed. In developing that framework, he would need to consider that the BNP is literally standing on its two feet to participate in national elections where it would need guarantees of a level playing ground to overcome its fears. The SG would need to determine whether these fears are justified and in that context, focus on what the people outside the inner circles of the two parties, think and feel. 

He would also need to consult the views of important member countries, particularly those who have a stake in which way the politics of Bangladesh goes, particularly the USA, China and most importantly India. Of course, he would also need to consider whether the ruling party’s contention that holding elections under 15th amendment of the Constitution that it drafted and passed with its 3/4th majority without due process of consultation is good enough reason to take the country to general elections without the opposition that everybody in Bangladesh except those in the ruling party feel would be a prescription of disaster for the country.

The Secretary General has leverage that in Bangladesh’s current politics no other country has to influence/encourage the present rulers of the country to see views not aligned to its own. Bangladesh has emerged as a major contributor to UN peacekeeping operations that in turn has emerged as a key factor in Bangladesh’s domestic politics because the armed forces have tremendous real and imagined power to influence the country’s politics. In the last days of the last BNP Government and first few days of the CTG, the peacekeeping issue was used by the Generals then in charge of armed forces to force President Yazuddin to declare emergency and impose their own agenda on the country that forced Bangladesh decades back in its development efforts.

The Secretary General could keep that in mind and use the leverage positively. The UN does not simply have responsibility to help countries regain peace after it has been destroyed. It has pre-emptive responsibility to save a country from going the way where peace would become casualty. He could use this line of thinking to convey to the ruling party that it would not be logical for the UN to seek peacekeepers from Bangladesh where there was no peace in its own country. Bangladesh in its present predicament could be a classic case where the UN could play such a role. Further, the UN has leverage with a host of other issues where the Bangladesh Government would want to listen to the UN. The area of climate change for instance is one.

The UN Secretary General does not take initiatives like the one in Bangladesh without discussion/consultation with member countries that have a stake in the country.  Therefore he must have consulted India with others before his phone calls. He would need to enhance this contact with India in the days ahead because India holds the key to whether the ruling party would agree to hold elections where the BNP would be able to participate. In fact, India alone more than all the other countries put together could ensure whether the Secretary General would succeed or fail with his Bangladesh initiative.

Ban Ki-moon may have walked into history with his phone calls. He would now need to ensure that the calls are the beginning of a determined involvement with Bangladesh in its present crisis. The whole of Bangladesh would like to wish him success in his peacekeeping mission in Bangladesh. Should he succeed, he would be able to prove that his role and his office are worth a whole bundle of UN peacekeeping missions involving thousands of international peacekeepers and worth hundreds of millions of US dollars.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador


INDIA FAILS ON LBA, TEESTA DEALS Bangladesh in grave political cris

Weekly Holiday
Friday, 30th August, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid has been trying his best to convince the BJP and Mamata Banarjee to come on board to ratify the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) and the latter also to agree to the Teesta deal. His sincerity in this regard is above question. However, there is reason to worry whether he sometimes goes out of line to give a sense of optimism to Bangladesh where the ground reality is negative. During his visit to Dhaka in February, he had said that both the Teesta deal and ratification of LBA would be delivered to Bangladesh without further delay.

Recently, he made light of news that the BJP and Trinamool had hardened their respective stands on the LBA. He stated that the Congress led government would raise the LBA ratification bill in Rajya Sabha and insisted that the BJP/Trinamool would support it. At one point, he made a comment that sounded weird because it was difficult to understand whether he was trying to encourage Bangladesh or making light of its concerns. He said the LBA became a done deal like a marriage as soon as the Indian Prime Minister inked the additional protocol to the 1974 Indira-Mujib Agreement when he visited Dhaka two years ago and the ratification process was just a formality like the photo session part of that marriage!

When news reached Dhaka, Salman Khurshid’s assurance notwithstanding, that the ratification bill had not been placed before Rajya Sabha, journalists turned to the Prime Minister’s International Affairs Adviser Gowhar Rizvi for comments. He echoed Salman Khurshid’s description of the LBA as a marriage to allay concerns and stated that the ratification would inevitably follow like the photo session of a marriage! In their weird way of explaining the failure of the Congress led government to place the ratification bill, both missed or deliberately ignored a historical fact.

Poor diplomacy

In 1974, Bangladesh-India signed the Indira-Mujib Agreement. Under the agreement, Bangladesh transferred South Berubari immediately afterwards. In return, India was supposed to hand over sovereignty of Teen Bigha corridor to Bangladesh for passage to the Bangladeshi enclaves of Dahagram and Angorpota. India never kept its commitment to an Agreement that Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman signed for their respective countries. In 2011, 37 years after the Agreement was signed, India allowed Bangladesh permission to use the corridor round the clock but did not transfer sovereignty to Bangladesh.

In fact, Bangladesh negotiators, for reasons unknown, had shown the tendency of the International Affairs Adviser all along while negotiating with India. They followed India blindly and believed in Indian promises without checking against ground realities. Unbelievably, they failed to realize what hugely important cards they bargained away to India on just promises. Muchkund Dubey, Dev Mukherjee, Veena Sikri and Rajeen Mitter, all former Indian High Commissioners to Bangladesh recently but belatedly criticised New Delhi for its failure to deliver the Teesta and LBA deals to Bangladesh after Sheikh Hasina had answered India’s dreams by providing it security support and trial run of the land transit for which the Awami League has been pushed to a undesirable political predicament with national elections only months away.

In desperation, the Bangladesh Foreign Minister made an ill-advised trip to New Delhi last month and the Bangladesh High Commissioner to India travelled to Ahmedabad to call on Narenda Modi. The moves failed and reflected the naïve way in which Bangladesh conducted negotiations with India. Foreign Policy Adviser Gowhar Rizvi’s choice to use Salman Khurshid’s description of the LBA to explain why the LBA bill was not raised in Rajya Sabha was another example of the poor quality of diplomacy. People wanted to be told unequivocally when the deals would be delivered. They did not expect the Adviser to pick the weird comment of the Indian Foreign Minister to make light of their concerns.

Delhi’s weird concern

New Delhi, aware that its failure to deliver the two deals had placed a friendly government in dire political straits, showed concerns over it in recent months. It held discussions with the BJP/Trinamool as well as published papers to convince the people that no harm would come to any parties in India if it delivered the deals. Salman Khurshid’s description of the LBA as a done marriage was also a sign of that concern, albeit a weird one. In another sign of that concern/pressure, the Indian External Affairs Ministry released a letter to the media that was written by Mamata Banarjee before the visit of the Indian Foreign Minister to Dhaka in which she had clearly given West Bengal’s clearance to both the deals to put the mercurial Chief Minister on a spot. 

Unfortunately, the release of the letter had the opposite result from what the Indian MEA expected. The Chief Minister went on a rage and more or less ended any hope of the two deals receiving her clearance anytime soon. On the LBA, she said unequivocally: “…our state of West Bengal will get only 7,000 acres of land but will have to recede 17,000 acres of land to Bangladesh. This cannot be accepted without taking into confidence and consent of the local people who live in the transferable areas.” Mamata Banarjee was equally negative on the Teesta deal over which she accused New Delhi of insincerity. She also said that at the draft stage of the deal, New Delhi “had said something but proposed something totally different in the final stage.”

BJP’s Sushma Swaraj was equally dismissive of agreeing to the LBA after New Delhi had failed to raise the LBA ratification bill as Salman Khurshid had promised. She said: “On the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement, I wish to clarify that the BJP is completely against it.” In what has put the Congress led Government on a spot, the BJP accused it of negotiating with Bangladesh in bad faith as well as failing to take on board what it considered the “emotions” of people to be affected by the land exchange deal. It was again Sushma Swaraj who exploded the bombshells on New Delhi and Dhaka. She said emphatically that the BJP’s position on the LBA was not a new one and that it had been opposing the Congress led Government’s attempt to ratify the 1974 Indira-Mujib Agreement and the additional protocol signed in September 2011 all the time. She accused the Congress led government for “inking” the additional protocol “casually” that raised serious questions on the Indian Foreign Minister’s description of the LBA as good as a marriage deal!

India’s bad faith

The latest statements of BJP and Mamata Banarjee established that the Teesta and the LBA deals never had any realistic chances of being delivered to Bangladesh, a fact about which New Delhi was well aware all the time. These statements together with what the former Indian High Commissioners have recently stated in the media have established that for the failure to achieve the paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations for which Sheikh Hasina had taken great political risks was not entirely due to poor negotiating skills of the Bangladesh negotiating. The Indians negotiated in bad faith that contributed equally if not more to why Bangladesh-India relations have altered. Salman Khurshid’s latest reference to the LBA being as good as a marriage deal should now haunt New Delhi if it reflects on its dealings with Bangladesh honestly. 

Indians too, have reacted sharply to the way New Delhi treated Bangladesh. In a recent survey conducted by IBN/CNN/The Hindu, Bangladesh came on top as the country Indians trusted most, ahead of even Russia! Analysts explained this as the result of guilt among Indians over New Delhi’s failure to be fair to Bangladesh. The 7 northeastern states where the prospect of land transit leading to regional connectivity had raised great hopes felt the same way as those who were interviewed for the IBN/CNN/The Hindu poll. More importantly, the failure convinced most Bangladeshis that India could not be trusted.

Nevertheless, New Delhi and the parties that objected to the LBA and Teesta deals know too well how important Bangladesh’s sustainable cooperation is for India’s critical security concerns and for regularizing the land transit deal that Bangladesh had given on a trial basis. At the same time, on the Bangladesh side, it is now accepted on a bipartisan basis that if relations were to be built on reciprocal basis, Bangladesh would have the genuine prospects of becoming the regional connectivity hub within which the outstanding bilateral problems related to water, trade and land boundary would be peacefully resolved. Therefore, although the paradigm shift that Sheikh Hasina had envisioned have stalled for which both sides contributed, the Bangladesh-India negotiations over the last five years have established the rich potentials of friendly relations.

Delhi can still help

Unfortunately, there are now no cards in the hands of the AL led government to influence negotiations over the Teesta/LBA deals. New Delhi has also exhausted its cards. There are little prospects of anything happening from the Indian side that must make the next move to take relations forward. Therefore realistically, both sides must now wait till new governments come to power in Dhaka and New Delhi through elections in the respective countries. However, the elections in Bangladesh have become uncertain that should encourage New Delhi to take a fresh look at Bangladesh. The ruling party’s insistence to conduct the next general elections under an interim government headed by Sheik Hasina is pushing the country towards what many believe a civil war. It would be in India’s interest to ensure that this would not happen because if Bangladesh were to face a civil war, India’s security concerns would become a nightmare where Bangladesh could very well become what Condoleezza Rice had predicted in New Delhi in 2005; the “next Afghanistan.”

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has aggregated the international concern over Bangladesh. He made phone calls recently to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to urge talks between them for free, fair, transparent and “inclusive” general elections. The SG’s concerns notwithstanding, his initiative has little chance of succeeding in the current mood of the ruling party. However if the Congress led government of India intervened with the Awami League, with which, its failures to deliver the deals notwithstanding, it still has close contacts, the prospect of SG’s initiative succeeding would enhance dramatically. In fact, India is the only country at present that can encourage the ruling Awami League to see the wisdom of holding free, fair, transparent and inclusive national elections.

It is in India’s interest that it should encourage the ruling Awami League to ensure that the BNP was not kept out of the next national elections by putting its weight behind the UNSG’s initiative. It is also in AL’s interest because holding “inclusive” general elections would give it the chance of going to the voters with its performance and a chance to win. The AL chances of returning and remaining in power in national elections without the BNP would be a fantasy; damage the credibility of the party, push the country towards civil war and leave it holding the BAKSAL flag once again. The people of Bangladesh would also hold India responsible if the country exploded over the elections for contributing its share in that, God forbid, predicament.

[The writer is a retired career Ambassador]

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Egyptian military takes country to the brink

The Independent
Saturday, 24th, August, 2013

M. Serajul Islam

Egypt is burning and all because one General is determined to demolish what comes his way for realizing his “swelling” ambitions to become the current day Nasser.  The anti-Muslim Brotherhood  (MB) groups who had urged him to take power and bring down the elected regime of Dr. Mohammad Morsi are now finding out that they had helped wake up the aspirations of a new dictator who is now posturing to take Egypt back to days worse than those of the dreaded Mubarak regime and bury the fruits of Arab Spring.

Since taking power after millions had gathered in Tahrir Square to demand that Mohammad Morsi step down and give new elections to the country, the Egyptian military and security have gunned down according to its own estimates nearly 1000 Egyptians mainly in the streets of Cairo. Those gunned down were almost all the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who had chosen to challenge the military’s action against its elected regime by gathering in the streets. The military blamed the MB for starting the killings by shooting at the military/security. Although there may have been some instances of shootings by MB supporters, international media has established that the killings were almost entirely the work of the military/security.

World opinion has swayed against the military regime in Cairo. Unfortunately, the military led by General Sissy seems determined to suppress MB’s demonstrations in the streets by force and does not appear to be at all concerned at the large number of deaths that are occurring in the streets. Egypt has not seen such bloodshed even when the military had ruled without caring for any democratic pretensions. In the past, when the military regimes had dealt with street demonstrations, most notably from the MB, it had succeeded in clamping down and dispersing the opposition. In fact, the past military regimes were able to ban the MB and keep it out of politics as long as they rules. This time, the MB is simply refusing to give in.

What General Sissy and his men are trying are tactics that are from the stage of history that has gone into the garbage. Meanwhile, Egypt has had the benefit of the Arab Spring where people of all groups/factions, including the MB and the forces that opposed it recently to side with the military, came together and in 18 days ended Hosne Mubarak’s 3 decades of military and oppressive authoritarian rule. Thereafter, the country has had both the parliamentary and presidential elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood won democratically although its victories in both were marginal.

The Muslim Brotherhood unfortunately failed to focus on the fact that its democratic victories were only marginal and that Egyptians had not given it the mandate to impose its Islamic agenda on them. In addition, the administration of Mohammad Morsi, inexperienced as it was, also acted in the same authoritarian way as the hated regime that the Arab Spring had overthrown. Therefore, the massive demonstrations in Tahrir Square against the MB’s authoritarian ways were quite understandable. What was not understandable was the forces that had gathered at Tahrir Square against MB’s misrule urged the military to the rescue.

In fact, what the current situation is bringing into the centre stage about the Arab Spring is the fact that the change that millions had achieved in January 2011 was an incomplete one. The Tahrir Square millions believed that by removing Hosne Mubarak, they had achieved their objective and returned home. They allowed the military/security based on which Hosne Mubarak carried out his authoritarian and fearsome regime to remain intact. Thus after Mubarak left, they found out to their dismay that the military was not at all inclined to allow democracy to be established in the country. The military interfered in both the presidential and parliamentary elections and did almost everything to derail both.

It was by some clever handling of the MB, particularly by Mohammad Morsi, that it was able to assume political power from the military. The way Mohammad Morsi was able to get rid of General Tantawi, the powerful Army Chief and Defense Minister in his cabinet was particularly commendable. Many had expected that in the cat and mouse game between the elected representatives and the military, the democratic forces were winning. Unfortunately, before it could win the game against the military, the MB upset and annoyed the democratic forces with whom it had ended the military dictatorship of Hosne Mubarak by hurrying with its Islamic agenda.

The falling apart of the forces that were allies during the Arab Spring was the opportunity that the military was waiting for. It was offered by the forces against the MB in a silver platter to the military. For the military in Egypt, it is not just political power that motivates it, which by itself is an extremely powerful motivation. The military in Egypt has a lifestyle that it has built over the last half a century and more where it is by its own right, a formidable economic power. If it loses political power, that lifestyle and stranglehold of the economy would also go. However, unless the military goes out of political power comprehensively, Egypt’s tryst with democracy would be nothing more than a mirage.

This is where the forces who went against the MB to bring the military made a fundamental error although the MB itself must bear a great deal of responsibility for angering and upsetting the democratic forces against it. Nevertheless, the recent murderous actions of the military have highlighted the real dangers facing the people of Egypt; that it must take chances with the Muslim Brotherhood that, its fundamentalist views notwithstanding, has opted for democratic ways by democratic means and not by inviting the military to oppress and suppress it. Already, Al Baradei has realized that mistake and has resigned and after doing so, now facing proceedings from the Court for betrayal. Many human rights activists who had urged the military to intervene against the MB have retracted and have given statements against the military. The massacres have crossed the lines and there is no doubt that those who urged the military and now regretting that they did so.

The MB, its mistakes in governance notwithstanding, has shown in the face of massacres that this MB is not the same that Nasser/Sadat/Mubarak were able to banish out on politics by their Presidential decrees. The present MB would simply not give in. This could be dangerous unless the military stops its rampage to browbeat the MB to submission, which is not likely to happen.  The massacres would only lead the extremist elements in the MB to gain the upper hand and push Egypt to the brink. Al Qaeda’s number 2 Ayman Al Zawahiri is an Egyptian and a former MB activist. He is still alive and must be smiling at the way events are shaping in Egypt.

The urgent need is to stop the army from its avowed path to force the MB to submission that could push Egypt towards becoming the “next Afghanistan”. The international powers led by the United States have that power to stop the military’s marauding ways, not the Egyptians. The US that has made strong statements following the massacres in Cairo after declaration of emergency but fallen short of calling the military takeover a coup must do so and stop all aid to the military regime immediately. The US must also urge its allies in the region that has offered aid in billions to the new regime- the Saudis, the Kuwaitis and UAE- to withdraw. An international alliance must be built to force the military regime to start dialogue with the MB and all other democratic forces and give a road map for return to democracy as soon as possible. Time is of the essence and the international powers can wait to stop the military regime at the peril of Egypt and world peace for if Egypt erupts, it will not spare those who have powers to stop Egypt from self-destructing.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Egypt.

The Chinese Ambassador’s unprecedented “interference” in Bangladesh’s domestic affairs

Daily Sun
Sunday, 25th August, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The Chinese Ambassador in Dhaka Li Jun, unlike his western colleagues, pursues diplomacy more in the traditional way. Recently the Foreign Minister had called the Ambassadors/High Commissioners in Dhaka to the Foreign Minister to remind them in a rather candid manner that they should not cross the limits while talking publicly of Bangladesh’s internal matters. The caution was based on a correct interpretation of the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations that prohibits diplomats from interfering in the host country’s internal affairs in return for many privileges of which diplomatic immunity is the major one.

Foreign Ambassadors, particularly those who provide aid to Bangladesh, have never believed that the Vienna Convention applied to them in Bangladesh although their countries are all signatories to the Convention. They have liberally spoken on our internal affairs, often embarrassing the government and sometimes also the nation. In this respect, one country whose Ambassador has diligently remained well within the restrictions of the Vienna Convention has been the Ambassador of China. I am not aware of the Chinese Ambassador ever speaking on our politics in public since diplomatic ties were established after the change of government in 1975.

It was therefore a great surprise that the Chinese Ambassador had broken that long and self-imposed silence, finally. In an event organized to honour the medical ship Peace Ark’s 7-day visit to Bangladesh to provide medical assistance to the common folks, the Chinese Ambassador Li Jun chose to speak on the current political situation in the country where the lack of agreement between the ruling party and the main opposition BNP on how to conduct the next national elections is threatening to push the country towards great uncertainty. The Ambassador asked the two mainstream parties to engage in “face to face’ negotiations that he thought “would be of great help.”

Those who know the Chinese way of conducting foreign affairs and diplomacy would be as surprised as some of us were who have interacted with the Chinese in our diplomatic careers.  In the Chinese way of conducting diplomacy, the last thing that an Ambassador would be allowed to do in his/her place of posting is indulge in the internal affairs of the host country not because the Vienna Convention prohibits it but because the Chinese do not believe that is the correct way of conducting relations between nations. Furthermore, China unlike some countries in our neighborhood and elsewhere, believes in relations with the country and not with or through any particular political party in that country that often encourages foreign diplomats to interfere in our politics.

The Chinese are very conscious of diplomatic niceties. In fact, China conducts its foreign relations in a manner where it treats a country’s government and the opposition almost on the same footing. Both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia know this from first hand experience. Both have visited China as the leader of the opposition and both know that on these visits, they were shown honour and dignity no different from what they were shown when they visited China as Prime Minister of Bangladesh. In fact, when Khaleda Zia visited China last year at the invitation of the Chinese Communist Party (in the Chinese system, the Communist Party whose power is as much if not more than the government that deals with opposition parties in foreign countries) she held discussions with the Chinese leaders as if she was representing the government of Bangladesh.

The Chinese Ambassador did not follow his western colleagues when he spoke on Bangladesh’s internal affairs.  He spoke on the deep crisis facing the country without being offensive to any of the stakeholders. He showed respect to both the mainstream parties by urging them to negotiate directly without apportioning responsibility. He also showed respect to the people by stressing that in the final analysis “it is for the people of Bangladesh to resolve their own problems.” The Ambassador left no one in doubt that it was China that was making the request to the mainstream parties and the people of Bangladesh as a “close and traditional friend “ interested in the country’s stability and development in which it is a partner.

The language and emphasis in the Ambassador’s statement apart, it understated unequivocally the concern in Beijing about the way Bangladesh is sliding. He made the statement not while responding to any journalist. He read it out of a written text that underscored that every word in the statement was made on instruction of his government. In that context, it would be important to also consider that the Ambassador’s statement left no doubt that China would like the two mainstream parties to end the political deadlock trough negotiations so that the country would have “ fair and transparent elections where all parties will participate,” and “no one (will) disagree to have elections”.  The hopeful hint in the statement was that the Ambassador felt that the two parties were already engaged in negotiations and that he may be aware of certain things that others, perhaps even his western colleagues, and the people may not be aware.

The Chinese Ambassador’s statement is also important because his country has the ability vastly superior to those of many Ambassadors who speak on our politics like they were the final authority. Bangladesh-China two-way trade is worth US$ 10 billion and Bangladesh’s exports to China are growing faster than the other way around. China is Bangladesh’s main supplier of military hardware. Further, Bangladesh-China bilateral relations are free of even minor issue/s of disagreement.  China is an emerging Super Power with major interest in Bangladesh and the region and enjoys friendly relations with both mainstream parties and most important of all, the people of Bangladesh, otherwise so divided politically, are unanimous about their friendly feelings towards China.

All these factors make the statement of Ambassador Li Jun a matter of some optimism among the people at  a time when they are worried and afraid of the great deluge that the politics of the country is brewing up for the nation. Perhaps, the Chinese who are not known to play politics in bilateral matters, are taking measures behind the glare of the media and the public to help a friendly nation in whose stability and development it has its own interests embedded, find its way out from sliding to the brink. Perhaps, that was the message that the Chinese Ambassador gave with his extremely unusual statement on Bangladesh’s internal affairs.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador. His email

About cancellation of Jamaat's registration

Financial Express
Published : Sunday, 25 August 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The High Court has cancelled Jamaat's registration to carry out its functions as a legitimate political party and contest in the country's parliamentary elections. The Jamaat can now appeal to the Supreme Court. Until that process is completed, discussion in the matter and passing opinion on the High Court's ruling would be sub-judice. Nevertheless, in talk shows and in newspaper articles, the ruling has been discussed critically without fearing the wrath of the Court that could issue contempt of court charges against those critical of the ruling.

The fear of contempt of court apart, the ruling has introduced into the country's precarious and fragile politics a new element of uncertainty. The Jamaat happens to be a major ally of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and an ardent supporter of the latter's demand of the caretaker government (CTG). In fact, in trying to force the ruling Awami League to accept the CTG demand, the Jamaat has been ahead of the BNP in the streets. Then of course is the important issue of Jamaat's role in the BNP-led alliance in the event the next general elections are going to be "inclusive" with the BNP taking part.

The Election Commission (EC) has stated that it is waiting for the judgment to reach its office for necessary action. However, the feeling that the EC has given to the ruling is that Jamaat's chances of participating in the next elections either alone or in alliance with any other political party is as good as over. With the general elections hardly a few months away, the time for Jamaat to complete the due process of the law with the appeal to the Supreme Court and get a favourable judgment would hardly be there. That apart, the chances of the appeal being successful under the existing political situation are also bleak.

The BNP was slow to react to the ruling. After remaining quiet for the first couple of days, it stated that it did not support the banning of a political party. Perhaps realising that the ruling did not ban the Jamaat as a political party but only cancelled its registration, the BNP was quick to rephrase its comment. Leaders of the BNP have said thereafter that the Jamaat would continue to remain in the BNP-led 18 party alliance. Although it did not make sense that a party could remain in an electoral alliance when it has lost its registration with the EC, the BNP's latest stand made sense politically. It did not want to be seen abandoning a trusted ally who may not be there in name in the general election but whose support and votes would be critical for it if the country were to have an "inclusive" general election. The BNP also considered that in case the ruling party went ahead with party government-led elections, it would need Jamaat's support for the street movement to force the ruling party to make those elections "inclusive."

The ruling party that should have been excited about the ruling did not seem to be so excited. In fact, it appeared that the AL-led government was delivered with a problem that it would have better liked not to have been confronted with in its present predicament. As soon as the ruling was made public, the secular forces in the country, including the Shahabag Gonojagoron Moncho, were excited and immediately called for banning the Jamaat, something that the AL-led government could deliver only at its own peril. The country's economic diplomacy would face a fatal blow if Jamaat was to be banned because such an action was very likely to incur the wrath of the Middle East (ME) patrons of Bangladesh expatriate labour.

Then there was another problem that High Court ruling has caused for the AL-led government. The High Court ruled against the Jamaat because of its faith on sovereignty of Allah that it felt contradicted a fundamental foundation of the Constitution, namely the sovereignty of the people. Nevertheless, the Constitution of Bangladesh starts with "Bismillah Ar Raihman ar Rahim" or "In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful" and accepts Islam as the State religion of Bangladesh. Thus while Jamaat could be rightfully punished for contradicting the Constitution for rejecting the supremacy of the Parliament by putting its trust on Allah, Jamaat could also claim that it has been made a victim because by putting its faith on Allah, it has upheld what the Constitution has dictated by reference to "Bismillah" and by stating Islam to be the country's state religion!

The contradictions notwithstanding, the High Court's ruling in the context of the country's highly partisan politics that should have gone against the interests of the BNP now appears to be going the other way round. The ruling would bar the Jamaat from contesting in the next polls but it would not bar Jamaat supporters from voting. In fact now with the ruling, they would vote for the BNP and make every vote count because their return to politics would depend on the BNP returning to power. Further, the BNP would not now have to sit and negotiate with the Jamaat to share seats and in the event the BNP won, it would not have to give the Jamaat any post in the Cabinet. The BNP that has been criticised by many who hold liberal/secular views without supporting the AL because of its connections with the Jamaat could now be encouraged to come behind the BNP.

A strange bipartisanship has emerged from the decision on Jamaat's registration. Both the AL and the BNP have stated they opposed the banning of Jamaat as a political party as a consequence of the ruling. However, the reasons for such a rare bipartisanship are different. The BNP made a strong statement against banning of Jamaat in order to convey the feeling to the Jamaat leaders and supporters that notwithstanding the ruling, the BNP would not abandon a trusted ally and would treat it as nothing had happened. The Awami League, though under serious pressure from its secular supporters, is opposed to the demand to ban the party to keep Jamaat's sponsors in the ME, from where expatriates send billions of US$ as remittance, from getting upset.

The High Court ruling on Jamaat's registration is another instance where actions that should be going in favour of the ruling party are going against it because times and circumstances have changed. The Cancellation of Jamaat's registration would have been different if it had come when the AL had the going its way that is now not the case. The issue of the billboards that should have helped the ruling party to convince the people of its good deeds has fallen flat on its face. Likewise, the attempt of the Prime Minister's son to inject a new sense of optimism in the party has also faulted. It seems like little that the ruling party is doing that in the past would have endeared it to the voters are helping it against its growing unpopularity.

Jamaat's public standing is very poor. Many have not forgotten its 1971 role. Yet when Jamaat lost registration and the Shahabag Gonojagoron Moncho gathered at Shahabag to celebrate the High Court decision, there were not many who joined the Moncho, a stark reminder on how the massive crowds have deserted it. The lack of public enthusiasm to join the Shahabag Gonojagoron Moncho to celebrate cancellation of Jamaat's registration is certainly no indication of its gaining popularity. It nevertheless could be a hint of the fact that at the level of the ordinary folks, the handling of issues related to Islam under the present government is perhaps beginning to worry a lot of people.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.

Friday, August 23, 2013

FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT Designed to perpetuate AL government?

--> Weekly Holiday,
Friday, 23rd August, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

It is past time for the Awami League to reflect on its current predicament that cannot be a happy one from the way its leaders are speaking and publicly contradicting one another. It is incomprehensible that a party with such a rich history and tradition can be doing such things in the country’s politics. It lost the city corporation elections badly. Instead of taking lessons, it blamed the people for electing “corrupt” and “terrorist” candidates. Yet it called the elections free and fair to dismiss the opposition’s call for the caretaker government!

In frustration, the ruling party raised scores of billboards to highlight the successes of the AL led government to encourage people to vote in its favour and against wrong candidates. It, however, did not realize that it had no right to raise these billboards because the space on which they raised these billboards was legally the property of private businesses that had paid for the space! Under fire from the public, the billboards were quickly taken down but meanwhile the AL led government was seen by the public as reflecting the same mindset as that of its student and youth wings which has earned peoples’ disapproval.

To compound its miseries, two important ministers contradicted each other when
journalists asked them on who raised the billboards and who took them down. One
important minister feigned ignorance while another powerful minister proudly owned government sponsorship of these billboards! Ministers of the AL led government have been regularly contradicting one another on all major issues of governance. Most recently, the public contradictions exchanged by the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Communications has embarrassed the nation although strangely the government went into denial over it.

AL’s suicidal move

The strange decision of the Election Commission (EC) to ask the Government to annul Article 91(E) of the Representation of People’s Order and thereby weaken it that everybody thought was like the EC shooting itself in the leg was another inexplicable action of the AL led Government and one would suspect correctly that the EC took the action on the government’s advice. At a time when the government is trying to convince the nation that the EC is powerful and independent to conduct the next parliamentary elections, this was a suicidal move. However, some have suggested that this move is an insurance policy of the ruling party in the event the next elections were to be inclusive. In the absence 91(E), opposition parties would be unable to contest election results where electoral laws would be violated.

In fact these actions of the ruling party are palpable signs of desperation to hang on to power at any cost for fear of retribution in case it lost power. In what can only be described as the ultimate act of desperation in a series of such desperate acts, one former minister has taken the cake. This former minister did not blink an eyelid when he said at a party gathering recently that if next parliamentary elections were not held for whatever reasons, then by virtue of the 15thamendment of the Constitution that the ruling party passed in its current term, the present government would continue to remain in power indefinitely, “democratically” and “constitutionally!” Ministers and party leaders have given spin to the minister’s statement that has caused widespread concern among the public about the government’s intentions.

Fifteenth amendment

The 15thamendment, as readers would no doubt recollect, scrapped the caretaker government (CTG) from the Constitution and replaced in its place the party government for conducting parliamentary elections for passage of one elected government to the next. The ruling party introduced the 15th amendment based on a Supreme Court ruling that elections under CTG were undemocratic because only elected representatives could hold democratic elections. The Court also recommended that the next two parliamentary elections could be held under the CTG in view of the conflict between the two mainstream parties. The ruling party used its 3/4th majority in parliament, with the opposition abstaining, for passing the15thamendment but ignored the Court’s recommendation for holding the next two elections under the CTG.

The 15th amendment was hurried through in record time in parliament. Soon after it was passed, constitutional analysts pointed out two elements that they felt contradicted tenets of parliamentary democracy. First, it allowed the next parliament to be elected while the present one would remain un-dissolved, something unheard of in parliamentary democracy. Second, it left vague what would happen in the event elections were not held for any reasons. Some constitutional analysts felt that the issue of what would happen in case elections were not held was kept vague deliberately; that it was a ”conspiracy” to allow the ruling party to remain in power till the opposition agreed to participate in elections conducted under it.

In fact, when the former minister made his statement, he inadvertently lent credence to the “conspiracy” theory to which many had alluded. Surely, a country with even the minimum semblance of democracy cannot imagine that a government would remain in power after its term was over without an election. It could happen only when the country was in war where the option definitely would be not to allow the existing government to remain in power but to form a national government and hold elections as soon as the external threat was over. In case civil disturbances made it impossible to hold national elections, the democratic/constitutional option would be to declare emergency under the President to create the conditions so that national elections could be held as quickly as possible for elected government to return.

Weird argument

The ruling party is making this weird argument that it would remain in power on the excuse that elections would not be held due to the opposition’s fault. If this weird contention were accepted for sake of argument, the ruling party would need to make efforts with the opposition to hold “inclusive” national elections before extending its own tenure. That does not seem to be the case. The Prime Minister has most recently said her party would not budge even an inch in the matter on opposition’s demand. The ruling party General Secretary has said that the ruling party would not hold discussions with the opposition over conducting the next national elections under any circumstances.

The weird contention that the ruling party would remain in power indefinitely if elections were not held due to its conflict with the opposition on the issue of the CTG would sound even more hollow and untenable because apart from the Court’s recommendation, the CTG has today become the demand of the people. Independent polls conducted by most national dailies have shown that the demand for national elections under a non-party government is today a national demand. In fact, apart from the Prime Minister, her inner circle and ruling party activists, there is a consensus among the people that the country would inevitably slide its greatest political crisis since becoming independent unless elections were held under a neutral non-party government in which the opposition would be able to participate.

There is of course the ruling party’s current predicament in the country’s politics to add to the absurdity of its demand/desire to remain in power indefinitely under the 15th amendment. It is on a very weak turf to be making the demand as its political fortunes are on the decline. In insisting on something so incredible, it is only reminding many people of the BAKSAL or the 4th Constitutional amendment by which the ruling party in 1974 had hoped to remain in power perpetually. The 4th amendment was introduced when the AL was the only political party in the country and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s towering personality as the party leader and the Father of the Nation was there to back the BAKSAL amendment. Yet the BAKSAL amendment failed.

The BAKSAL framework

At a time when the ruling party is challenged seriously by the BNP and in serious trouble with voters for making a mess of governance, even the thought of remaining in power after completing its tenure would just raise the ghost of BAKSAL that had kept the ruling party in political wilderness for over 2 decades. The AL would do itself great good to keep in mind that it was Sheikh Hasina’s promise in 1996 to give the party another chance by forgetting BAKSAL that had encouraged the people to return it to power under the CTG that it forced the BNP led Government to introduce into the Constitution as an amendment.

Attempting to hang on to power under the illogical and un-democratic interpretation of the 15th amendment would only encourage people to think that the ruling party is bent upon returning the country to the BAKSAK framework. In its current predicament and changes in international politics, it does not need a crystal ball to predict that it would fail and send the ruling party to another long tryst with political wilderness. Unfortunately, if the ruling party would insist to go that way, the country would suffer consequences too dangerous even to contemplate.

There is however another possibility that the ruling party could care to consider. If it insisted on what this former minister stated, then the disturbances that are certain to follow would inevitably send power to the hands of the extra-constitutional forces for only in a state of extreme denial or fantasy could the AL expect to use the 15th amendment to become the permanent government and expect the BNP/opposition forces and the rest of the nation to remain silent spectator.

‘Third force’ looming

If the extra-constitutional forces entered politics, it would only be for doing what the AL would fail, namely hold free, fair and “inclusive” elections. That would be exactly what the BNP is demanding; only those elections would not be immediate but perhaps after 3 or 6 months that the BNP would be only happy to wait. The armed forces learnt it the last time how its popularity nosedived when General Moin and his cohorts wanted to perpetuate power. It would be reasonable therefore to expect that the present army would not want to hang around for too long to incur public disapproval and hold the elections, hand over power to the elected representatives and leave. That would save the country from a disaster and earn the armed forces public adulation.

If politics went that way, the ruling party would be making another stupendous mistake to the series of mistakes it has been making these days. It would seriously put in jeopardy the party’s claim that it spearheaded the movement for a democratic Bangladesh. The only reasonable option for the ruling party for its own sake and that of the nation would be to amend the 15th amendment, plug the gap on its vagueness, hold negotiations with the opposition and find the way to hold free, fair, transparent and “inclusive” national elections.

Trying to hang on to power under the weird interpretation of the 15th amendment that strikes democratic ethos in the core would no doubt fail and leave the ruling party holding the BAKSAL flag.

[The writer is a former career Ambassador]

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Egypt: military crackdown brings emergency but massacres continue

Daily Sun
Sunday, 18th August, 2013

M. Serajul Islam

Senator John McCain hit bull’s eye with his description of Egypt’s current rulers that “if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck” to describe the character of the military regime that ousted the democratically elected regime of Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Senator was in Cairo early this week before the latest massacres and declaration of emergency. The Obama administration was taken by surprise when General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi used the dissatisfaction of a vast section of Egyptians to overthrow Mohammad Morsi and incarcerate him and top leaders of Muslim Brotherhood (MB). It used strong words against the ouster of a democratic regime but did little else.

The Obama administration however flip-flopped thereafter in dealing with the rising ambitions of Army Chief General Sisi. Its strong objection to the takeover of a democratic regime changed as the new regime appointed a civilian interim government in which even the respected Noble Peace Laureate Dr El Baradei joined as the Vice-president in charge of Foreign Affairs. The Obama administration warmed up to the military-backed government when it promised a return to democracy with both presidential and parliamentary elections within the next six months. It also agreed to release a consignment of F-16 aircraft as a sign that it was not unhappy with the military takeover. The military took this as a signal of US’ support for the new regime. Encouraged, it decided to deal with the MB’s refusal to accept the change by siege in the streets by force that resulted in deaths running into hundreds before last Wednesday’s massacre that killed many hundreds more.

The deaths that occurred before last Wednesday forced the Obama administration to reevaluate its acquiescence of the military. It suspended the decision to supply the installment of the F-16 aircrafts. The military regime reacted publicly to the changed stance of the Obama administration on its decision to crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, in a rare interview he gave to the Washington Post, General Sissy strongly criticised the Obama administration and accused it for its failure in acknowledging and fully endorsing what he described as movement of “a free people who rebelled against an unjust political rule.”

The interview of the general left no one in doubt that he was beginning to show “swelling ambitions” of becoming a modern-day Nasser and that he had little intention of returning Egypt towards democracy that the Obama administration believed he would. The interview was but just one proof of his real intentions of bringing Egypt back under the feet of the military and that the military rulers had little intensions of returning Egypt to democracy. When he called for a “mandate” from the people that started the conflicts in the streets with Muslim Brotherhood, everybody saw the eerie similarity between Nasser’s call in 1956 for a similar mandate that led to conflicts in the streets with Muslim Brotherhood, the banning of the organisation and Egypt’s half a century and more long tryst with military dictatorship.

In an editorial on July 26 the Washington Post wrote a hard-hitting article criticising the Obama administration’s dealings with the military regime. The editorial urged the White House that time was running out to control the General’s growing ambitions to bring Egypt from the brink. Within days after the editorial, the military armed with the “mandate” killed over a hundred Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the streets of Cairo. Senior Ministers of the regime dismissed media reports about deaths in hundreds by claiming that only a few were killed and that the deaths occurred as a consequence of attack by the supporters of Muslim Brotherhood. Even in the face of such massacres and the denial where the media recorded and exposed the killings, the Obama administration needs to do what many considered was absolutely necessary; rein the new regime from moving towards an oppressive military dictatorship and putting the final nail in the coffin of the “Arab Spring.

The Obama administration’s soft pedaling on events in Egypt sent the wrong signals to the Middle East countries under hereditary rule that are apprehensive about the expanding effects of the Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait together have offered the new regime US$ 8 billion to shore up its depleting coffers as a consequence of economic downtrend in Egypt due to political disturbances since the fall of the Mubarak regime. The regime lost its patience and cracked down with tanks this week on MB supporters who had camped in two places of Cairo and refused to end their siege. The military/police action killed 278 people that included 235 civilians and 43 police officers and injuring thousands. The MB claimed that over 2 thousands have been killed.

The latest deadly clashes resulted in the regime’s decision to call emergency. Egyptians were immediately reminded of the regime of Hosni Mubarak that they thought they had buried, that had used emergency to keep them under perennial dictatorship where people’s rights were trampled, where the people lived in permanent fear of the military and the secret police. In the wake of the emergency, Vice-president El Baradei resigned, protesting opposition to the regime’s handling of the MB supporters. Egypt watchers are apprehending that the country may be sliding to a civil war where Muslim Brotherhood is not just refusing to go away but showing the determination to fight to the end. What is dangerous is not just the fight between the military and Muslim Brotherhood supporters but also between the party and other groups.

Many are calling on the Obama administration to use the card that it has not used so far, call the takeover by the military a coup and let mandatory constitutional requirement that US must withhold aid to any country where military takeover by pushing out a democratic regime takes effect.

This was what Senator McCain was demanding from the White House with his reference to the “duck”. The demand has assumed a sense of dire urgency by the latest massacres in the streets of Cairo and the declaration of emergency that has failed to deter the MB and the disturbances have spread into cities elsewhere, particularly in Alexandria. At the time of filing this article, President Obama warned the military that US aid would stop and postponed the joint military exercises but still fell short of calling the military takeover a military coup that would mandatorily stop all US aid to Egypt. Meanwhile, world pressure against the military regime is mounting and so is the pressure on the United States to take leadership to end the brutal ambitions of the new general in Cairo and his military cohorts. The emergency has had little effect on the resolve of the Muslim Brotherhood to fight and the massacres by the military that Turkey has called genocide, are mounting.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and former Bangladesh Ambassador to Egypt.