Coming to America

Tasneem Khalil

Tasneem Khalil

Photo/PID: Another Hamid Karzai in the making? Military installed Chief Advisor of Bangladesh, Fakhruddin Ahmed, meets the US installed President of Afghanistan, both visiting the US to attend the UN General Assembly.

[Mashuqur Rahman, USA.]

Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, the civilian face of Bangladesh’s military government, has arrived in America. For the first time in sixteen years Bangladesh will be represented at the UN General Assembly by an unelected technocrat. While Dr. Ahmed lacks a constituency back in Bangladesh he should feel quite at home in New York.

In January Bangladesh experienced its first UN-instigated (if not backed) coup when the most senior UN official in Bangladesh, Renata Lok Dessalien, warned that there would be “implications” for the Bangladesh army’s participation in UN peacekeeping missions if it took part in the scheduled elections. Later in the day Bangladeshi generals dutifully obliged by walking into the Bangladeshi President’s office and demanding that power be handed over to technocrats chosen by the military. Apparently participating in a rigged election is far worse than participating in a coup, according to the United Nations. Thus was installed Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed as the Chief Advisor of Bangladesh’s “caretaker government”.

In New York Dr. Ahmed is now amongst his constituents. The Bangladesh military government has taken a number of steps recently to prepare the ground for this trip. On September 9, Dr. Ahmed declared on national television that the military government was easing the ban on indoor politics. Less than a week later Dr. Ahmed granted an interview to the BBC to discuss the military government’s “commitment” to a “roadmap” toward democracy. It was yet another interview granted by the Chief Advisor to a foreign news outlet without granting a single interview to the Bangladeshi press. The headline out of the BBC interview was that Dr. Ahmed declared that Bangladesh was not under military rule. Dr. Ahmed also made the incredible claim that his government believed in freedom of press and had not imposed any restrictions on the media:

About the closure of talk shows on private TV channels at the instruction of a government agency, he said the government believes in freedom of mass media and they had not imposed any restrictions on them.

Fakhruddin said the government accepted and was benefited by criticisms made at the talk shows. However, he admitted that an advisory was given to the TV channels after the Dhaka University incident last month, which he said is a temporary measure.

“We’ve given full freedom for last seven-eight months. There is no dearth of goodwill or sincerity in ensuring freedom of the media,” he said, adding that the criticisms are very important but those must be objective and constructive.

Dr. Ahmed neglected to mention, amongst other things, the concerted intimidation of the media by army personnel, the very well-documented beatings of journalists, the recent arrest of a cartoonist, and the talk-show “guidelines” handed down by the military government to television channels. The press in Bangladesh has been mostly bludgeoned into submission while the Chief Advisor maintains his government “believes” in freedom of the press.

The interview to the foreign media was just in time for the visit to Bangladesh by John Gastright, the US deputy assistant secretary for South Asian affairs. In Bangladesh Gastright offered support for the military government in Bangladesh and said that the US looks forward to “full democracy” in Bangladesh. To underscore the point that Bangladesh was not being ruled by the military, Mr. Gastright, in an act of diplomatic jujitsu, met with General Moeen U Ahmed, Bangladesh’s army chief:

About his meeting with the army chief, Gastright said he had an excellent meeting with Gen Moeen U Ahmed, where he congratulated the chief of army staff on the important role the joint forces are playing in support of the caretaker government.

“I welcomed General Moeen’s repeated assurances that he and the army do not have any political ambition,” Gastright said.

John Gastright got what he came for in Dhaka: an assurance from the military that the military camps all around the country, the military officials heading civilian departments, the military detaining and torturing people, the military intimidating and shutting down media outlets, the military beating students and journalists, the military arresting university professors, and the military chief making political speeches — all of it — did not mean that the military was running the country. It was indeed a “Silent Coup,” as the Economist put it back in January.

Mr. Gastright’s support for Bangladesh’s military government was not surprising, nor was it new. In August, representing the Bush Administration Mr. Gastright appeared in front of the US House Foreign Relations Committee and offered support for Bangladesh’s military government, as well as the military government of Pakistan. In his prepared testimony, he stated:

From the beginning, the new Caretaker Government stressed that it sought to restore, not replace, Bangladesh


11 Responses to “Coming to America”

  1. ESAR

    Mash: A piece very well written and supported by documentation. I may differ with you on how to confront/tackle the situation in today’s Bangladesh (as I have done so vigorously in the past), but this time I must agree to the presentation of facts as prescribed in this article.

    Keep on walking… you will never walk alone.

  2. Imran

    Mash, you keep talking “for the people.” We are with you.

    Have you noticed McKinnon’s statement yesterday that CTG is playing with fire and famous Anwar Chowdhury kind of trying to play “neutral” all of a sudden, and EU demanding explanations from the CTG on some specific HR abuse incidents? Your analysis is correct. Gastright’s source of information is FAROOK SOBHAN? Oh, my God! That’s like Cheney getting info. and advice from Ahmed Chalabi prior to the US invasion of Iraq.

    All the tell tale signs of things are not going right are peeking through the dark clouds. Its just a matter of time, may be too late for FUA & MUA to read the writing on the wall. Keep up the insightful writings. The discussion at the Heritage Foundation on Bangladesh this Friday should be interesting to follow.

  3. Javvy

    I feel disgusted. An unelected person speaking on behalf of Bangladesh! Ridiculous! Shame! Shame! Want to see democracy back ASAP. The UN, Brits and the US have exceeded the limit in legitimizing an undemocratic government. Hope they can put back the military genie and the civilian goofs inside the bottle in time.

  4. Salam Dhaka

    Is Bangladesh the next Myanmar? Maybe, but it took 19 years for the international community all of a sudden to realize that “wait a minute, people in Burma want freedom!” CTG is playing in some dangerous times.

  5. Tacit

    Great piece. Someone should let Gary Ackerman know that he was correct and Gastright was in the wrong, that this government is unconstitutional and has outstayed its legitimate tenure.

  6. Noor-Hossain-Reincarnated

    All’s not well in the Eastern Front. There’s an eerie silence which won’t last long.

    I liked the Ackerman grilling of Gastright in the Congress. He was fully supporting the FUA-MUA duo and the CEC in Dhaka while he totally avoided mentioning gross violation of human rights and speedy restoration of parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh. He seems to be pretty naive about politics in Bangladesh.

    The BNP secretary general Delwar Hossain said something very significant today. I admire his allegiance to Khaleda as BNP’s leader at a time when many have betrayed her. He also rebuked the EC for violating the constitution. He was particularly angry about remarks made by the ex-army guy Shakawat. I too find this guy at times talking in fascist, irresponsible haughty ways. Delwar also made it clear that people would ultimately rally around Khaleda and Hasina as they hold the source of all power of both the parties. He rightly asked the CTG to release the former PMs. The current CTG is either deliberately or at the instructions of internal and external dictats interning both the ladies while framing cases against them and their loyalists.

    Events in Pakistan and Burma should signal of things to come in the Bangladesh imbroglio. This is just a “made to look simple scenario” which will start hemorrhaging again once situation under the military junta deteriorates fast after Eid. The military junta has already alienated the academia and students who would never ever forgive them. It is just a matter of time. It must remember that the academe is the tinderbox of activism.The military has simply played with fire. The military must realize that an impoverished disaster-prone country like Bangladesh cannot and will not allow the army to evolve into a fascist state apparatus devouring bulk of the national budget for a meagre 150,000 strong armed forces. A 150 million nation cannot afford to nuture with taxpayers money a huge body that has no accountability and transparency to the parliament. Its enormous budget is secretive and deprives the country of badly needed resources that could have easily been channeled into education, rural development and health-care. It cannot be allowed to evolve into a military-industrial complex like the Pakistani Army.

    In Bangladesh events unfold very quickly originating from DU. Intimidation and terror tactics, insult and depravity may have worked now but will explode into a violent outburst the next time.

    Therefore, the best option for this time-expired unconstitutional, undemocratic junta is to quickly hold elections and hand back power to the Jatiya Sanshad as soon as possible. Delaying tactics will sever all its graceful exit routes. It won’t be the monks taking to the streets. It would be the unbeatable combination of masses and students galore!

  7. Mash

    ESAR, thanks. Reasonable people can of course disagree, and sometimes quite passionately. I appreciate your comment.

    Imran, Congressman Ackerman made mincemeat out of Gastright, not just on Bangladesh but also on Pakistan. And I may be attending the Heritage Foundation event. The panel could have been more varied, but I am really interested to hear the administration’s position from Gastright.

    Tacit, Rep. Ackerman was extremely well briefed. If you haven’t already, watch the webcast of the hearing that I linked above. The last 5 minutes of the long hearing has the exchange between Ackerman and Gastright that I quoted above. It is preceded by Gastright looking like a fool on Pakistan and the following interesting exchange that I didn’t quote in the post because of space:

    Ackerman: Let me ask you a question about Bangladesh. Your statement notes, “the challenge for US policymakers has been to forge policies that accomodates the complex realities on the ground in Bangladesh.” So read the statement. I take it that means the administration does not view takeover by the military-backed group of advisors as a military coup, which I think you said.

    Gastright: Yes sir.

    Ackerman: And therefore coup related sanctions on US assistance are not applicable.

    Gastright: That’s correct sir.

    Ackerman: Is the government that’s there now there because of the sufferance of the military?

    Gastright: No sir, the government is there now because the President at the time dismissed the caretaker government back in January and appointed a new caretaker government.

    Ackerman: Was that extra-legal?

    Gastright: I’m sorry sir.

    Ackerman: Was that legal?

    Gastright: According to the attorneys at the State Department that does not meet the standards of a coup. That is in accordance with their constitution.

    Ackerman: And the caretaker government is a pawn of the military?

    Gastright: We do not believe that. We do believe the military is backing this caretaker government. And I think that’s fairly public information. I know its public information.

    Ackerman: I suspect you’re right.

    Gastright: (smiles)

  8. Iconus.Clustus

    So, where will the fiasco lead us. Mash… thanks for yet another incisive piece, but to what end sir? What are the likely outcomes?

    Let’s consider the US congress and their views and debates on matters relevant to us… were they able to do anything about any of the things that has gone on in the world where US has played the role of a vulture, intruder, plunderer, or what have you?

    Sure, Akerman was drilling this Gastright guy in where the sun doesn’t shine… but despite knowing all the realities as they stand… will US policy toward the region change overnight? Will they be able to forgo their interests? It is not simply a Democrat v. Republican affair right? It is their foreign policy, and history tells us Democrats have not been all that better than the Republicans when it came to their policies of expansion, imperialism, and so on… am I right or simply paranoid?

    Correct me if I am wrong, please.

    Furthermore,

    1. The military government has reached a point of no return. They will have to follow through. There is no way they are going to retreat from their [un]stated objectives. [Selective] Political cleansing, secret and not-so-secret deals with international financial institutions, backing the Islamists, establishing themselves for posterity, paralyzing the progressive forces, and so… those are their objectives, right?

    2. If so… what good will the elections bring about for us… it seems like most of the criticisms revolve around an early election… but, the fact that it will be engineered this way or the other is becoming clearer everyday… right? If not through out-right rigging like in the past, but certainly through political purging that has already reached quite the height.

    3. There is the National Security Council issue… no one talks about that…

    4. Judiciary… is that separate from the executive yet?

    5. Indemnity bill… hmm… wouldn’t that be used once again?

  9. Zunaed Iqbal

    An open letter to Sir McKinnon of the Commonwealth

    Sir:

    I am writing to congratulate the Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon on his brilliant speech on democracy, parliament and development. It has been a very thought provoking speech by someone who really cares about democracy and the fruits it bear for developing countries.

    I am very pleased to note that Sir McKinnon has mentioned Bangladesh as a special case where democracy has been replaced by an over-stretched, time-expired, so-called interim setup that is taking too long to hold the general elections.

    Had the intentions of the unelected military government been clear it would have held elections easily by the end of this year — 2007, NOT 2008! It is using lame excuses in the name of its selective anti-corruption drive to set the stage for a military dictated rigged elections in 2008. It is deriving its evil strength from the backing the undemocratic government is getting from the US, UK and UN. They have not even said anything about the gross violation of human rights by the military junta in Bangladesh.

    I am confident that Sir McKinnon will make it clear to the undemocratic fascist government that there is no alternative to participatory democracy. This unconstitutional government must also refrain from engineering a military-designed parliament in line with the Bush backed pseudo-democracy of despot Musharraf in Bangladesh.

    Sir McKinnon, please help us restore a sound flourishing democracy in Bangladesh ASAP. Please give special attention to Bangladesh as today we have very few visionaries of your stature left in this world. I have closely followed your visits to Bangladesh and your unflinching support for healthy democracy in Bangladesh. May God bless you and your family. Please help us restore democracy-the thriving force behind human development and progress!

    Sir McKinnon

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