Bangladesh had definitely sent one of its very best. On a beautiful spring day, some of the who’s who of Washington D.C. and representatives of many of the most established institutions in the nation’s capital had assembled at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to hear Farooq Sobhan speak about Bangladesh. The title of the talk interestingly enough was changed at the last minute to ‘The Role of Bangladesh in South Asian Cooperation’. The event was sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Center for Strategic Studies and the Hudson Institute.
The critical timing of such a discussion notwithstanding, the fact that Sobhan’s talk focused on external issues relating to Bangladesh as an emerging regional player, and the choice of the caretaker government to send him as a representative to the U.S. government gives one some cause for thought. After all, there is starting to be a general sense of unease about the motivations and goals of the caretaker government in the international circles. Then too there is a growing level of skepticism about which direction the democracy project is heading. A clever political maneuver, yet one that was not too subtle; the dispatching of a highly intelligent and respected individual to both appease the U.S. government and at the same time, shift the focus of concern from the internal tensions at the home front and focus attention on how Bangladesh can contribute through bilateral and regional ties, to a more secure and economically strong region. It was as if an undertone of a message was communicated; that this caretaker government was one with vision; while tackling domestic issues it was also concerned about the role of this small nation in a volatile region with tremendous potential.
If anything, Ambassador Sobhan was the answer to any government’s dream of a diplomat. Suave, succinct, eloquent and convincing, he devoted time discussing the current political situation in the country. The atmosphere alone was conducive to such a presentation. The audience consisted of the crème de la crème of the diplomatic circle including Ambassador Touqir Hussain, former Ambassador Tariq Karim, former Ambassador Teresita Scheffer (moderator), several representatives from the Indian and Bangladesh embassies, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Department of Commerce, National Endowment for Democracy, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Asian Development Bank, American Bar Association, Bangladesh-US Human Rights Coalition, Foreign Policy Association, USAID, U.S. Department of State, National Press Club, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, International Republican Institute, the World Bank, the Brookings Institute, Henry L. Stimson Center, Amnesty International, several trade and commerce bodies as well as businesses like Chevron. Last but not the least, Sajeeb Wajed, son of Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Opposition who was recently barred from entering Bangladesh by the army
(a ban that was just recently lifted), represented the Bongobondhu Foundation.
In his delivery, Ambassador Sobhan seemed to connect with all. He underscored that this caretaker government is a strong advocate of good governance and committed to ensuring that the democratic process would be reinstituted in due course. Bangladesh was fast descending into a ‘bloodbath’ given the political turmoil since last year and the military had to step in and declare a state of emergency so that the conditions of a free and fair elections could be established. The damage done to some of the most critical institutions, including the Election Commission, the electoral roles, the judiciary and the rampant and institutionalized levels of corruption is the focus of the new caretaker government, and one that it has tackled with vigour. Already, a new election commission has been appointed, new electoral roles with photographs has been put in place using an advanced computerized system with assistance from technical experts from the UN currently in Bangladesh and arrests are being made by the Anti-Corruption Commission to ensure that free and fair elections.
Ambassador Sobhan’s reiterated throughout the course of his presentation: “General Moeen is not General Musharraf”. As such, the General has no intention of integrating himself into politics once the country is ready for democratic processes. How can he assert this with such utter confidence? What is really different about this military takeover compared to others in the past? What implications can be drawn from Chief Advisor Fakhruddin’s insistence that it is his administration, not the army that is at the helm of the governing authority? Is this the beginning of an internal infraction of power between the two faces of the caretaker government? Who really is in control?
Ambassador Farooq was evidently a man on a mission, and a very successful one at that, at least perhaps temporarily. As he wittily addressed questions of Indo-Bangladesh relations on illegal immigration, the importance of coordinating intelligence units to fight terror at the regional front, of the increasing importance of SAARC in developing trade relations and combating poverty, there was a pervasive sense of confidence of a small nation coming to its own and negotiating effectively with the giants of the region. The only problem was, the positive image pursued and depicted seemed to carry more conviction, and almost overshadow that Bangladesh is under emergency laws.
Although he carried himself well as a delegate of the caretaker government and represented its views strongly, on a few issues, Ambassador Sobhan seemed slightly cautious on some salient points which are outlined below:
(i)Is there a military government in Bangladesh?
Bangladesh today has a civilian, not a military government, a point he stressed on emphatically and one he said he had communicated well to the State Department. His rationale? The army is not involved in any of the 45 ministries, and although it is taking the decision as to who needs to be arrested, is working in close collaboration with an advisory committee and anti corruption commission both of which are civilian bodies. Besides, “the aim of the military this time, having learned its lessons from the past” is to ensure the path to free and fair elections in 18 months, taking into account the religious and climatic considerations of the time frame; hence, elections will be held by November of next year, and the army will cease its involvement in civilian matters. Nevertheless, the presence of the army and its executive decision making authorities and the measures taken clearly indicate the current caretaker government is an extension of the military. Second, when questioned about when the state of emergency will be lifted, he pointed out that he was not privy to what the government had in mind but there was an expectation that it would be lifted on May 8 and political activities could resume.
(ii) When will the state of emergency be lifted?
Ambassador Sobhan agreed that the state of emergency has to be lifted and the fundamental rights need to be restored as soon as possible. Again here, it seemed that he was aware of the contradictions between what the caretaker government is saying in rhetoric and the obstacles being put in place to institutionalize a policy of silence and limiting space for public dissent.
(iii) Does the caretaker government have the human resources to tackle its multipronged agenda?
The Ambassador focused on the importance of the return of young expatriates to enter parliament and be involved in the progress of the nation; again, while this could be a genuine call to arms, it remains a matter of speculation how the current administration would aim to fulfill all its duties.
(iv)Dr. Younis’ entry and exit from politics
Ambassador Sobhan was of the opinion that Dr. Younis is a national treasure, but his decision to enter politics was taken too hurriedly without any preparatory work. There was no hurry for him to enter politics at a time when the country was already in a state of emergency, he said. Dr. Younis could have taken the time to make himself a more robust candidate when the elections are scheduled to be held. Hence his decision to also exit politics was taken too quickly; nevertheless, it was clear that his evaluation of this particular issue was his own, not necessarily reflective of the caretaker government’s position
(v) US policy toward the current situation, American understanding of the beginning of the process of rigging the elections with extension of the retirement age of the chief justice and the perception of U.S. being supportive of the recent coup.
In response to this question, former Ambassador Teresita Scheffer, who served as the moderator, explained that the US government has appeared to be supportive of any process that would work towards a free and fair election. That perhaps explains the assumption that the US government has been largely uncritical of the current situation. The administration was also aware of the implications of the decision of the Parliament to extend the retiring judge’s retirement age but the US government was impressed for better or for worse, with the way the caretaker government had ultimately worked on previous occasions and recognizes that the task of cleaning house has become increasingly difficult given the desperate measures taken by politicians to ensure their own victory. Nevertheless, the US government recognizes the creativity of the political system that allows for the creation of a caretaker government and hopes that democratic processes will be reinstituted within the time frame given, despite the complexities and difficulties of the current situation.
(vi) Role of Bangladesh Enterprise Institute and Center for Policy Dialogue in issuing early warnings about the steps being taken to rig elections
Ambassador Sobhan portrayed a realistic picture of the civil-political relations in Bangladesh which has yet to note the concerns voiced by think tanks seriously. Hence, despite the numerous seminars constantly held in the country, statements and warnings by such institutions have had historically little impact on government’s decision-making. So the government’s immunity to constructive criticism or advice has been one of its most salient characteristics, which has consequently relegated much of the work and potential of such bodies to the margins.
(vii) Military dictatorships are always eloquent about their entrance into politics. The tragedy lies in the fact that individuals such as you who would be the most powerful voices from the civil society voicing criticism against the government are making excuses for a military government. Where does this government gets its legitimacy? Who monitors its timeframe which it has the power to expand? Is this turning into a family business with public appointments being given to relatives of the head of the CG as in the case of Fakhruddin Ahmed’s brother-in law being appointed as a foreign advisor? Isn’t this government destroying democracy by promising to build it?
Ambassador Sobhan’s response was that he is part of the civil sector and would retire to his civil commitments. Second, the military government had to step in given the throes of the crisis in January to ensure what the constituents and the international community demanded- free and fair elections and an accountable government that was not marred by corruption. Third, in any situation there is always room for criticism and the current government is conscious of one thing, that is, at the end of the day, their legitimacy will be judged by their performance. Finally, to the question of how to have faith in a democracy that has not made a commitment to specific goals and has no time frame, Ambassador Sobhan was emphatic that there is a specific goal, that of free and fair elections in 18 months which includes 6 months of preparatory process and 12 months to do field work for the elections. The work, he stressed, has already begun with consultations with UN experts and there is a need to order 8000 laptops, 8000 scanners, 8000 cameras and 15,000 people to train to do the data entry work. This will all take time, but elections will be held before the end of 2008. And the caretaker government, had committed itself to a democratic process that is robust.
One could almost sense a palpable sense of hope, of confidence and honesty in the presentation and indeed they might have been very much there. In the end, Ambassador Farooq Sobhan did what he was sent out to do—pacify the nerves of many, appease a few and provide an accountable face to Bangladesh politics, one that is committed to a future, and one that has an investment in the stability of an area larger than itself. He was clear in dispelling speculation that Bangladesh, could be on the brink of developing a Musharraf style government, because the democracy project has failed due to the incompetence and greed of politicians.
Yet, when all is said and done, there is still room for a degree of skepticism. Perhaps the where this government generates its legitimacy still remains an unanswered question, although some pointed out, it has been derived in people’s courts. There may be some who wondered as to where Farooq Sobhan truly derived his legitimacy from to represent a military-backed government that is holding its constituents under a state of emergency. Surely, his moments of discomfort and pensiveness when pressed on tough questions pointed to the complex nature of his mandate. Perhaps, one can speculate to what extent his assertion that Bangladesh is being ruled by a civilian government lies true, if the military is in charge of the continued imposition of the emergency laws and is the major decision-making authority exercising its legitimacy to be central to domestic politics. The explanations provided for how to trust in a suspended democracy if there is no understanding of where it is finally headed, which were given in the shape of investigative teams for corruption, laptops and scanners and cameras seemed weak at best. One wonders if this is the same information that has already been communicated to the general public in Bangladesh. Certainly the numbers themselves did not dispel the uncertainties of what lies ahead for the country where it is hoped that clean politicians can suddenly flourish after all political activities have been frozen for an unspecified period of time. The questions regarding some of the recent activities of the army, whose mandate is set by itself, and whose legitimacy is derived from itself, hung silently in the afternoon air, where many cheered the progressive attitude with which Bangladesh is trying to take a stance as a regional player and clean its house, while some wondered about the credibility of all the promises made.
Ultimately, the messages relayed to Washington that democracy will be returned, fundamental human rights restored seemed to have left an impression, because, one of the best and brightest had given assurance that the interests of the people underlie those shared by the caretaker government. The urge to trust in authority and one that speaks the language of democracy and human rights continues to be enticing. Yet a small voice of caution demands more as the current government waltzes into areas of questionable jurisdiction. For now, Washington might be slightly mollified. The more critical questions of how, when and where, and who controls the reins of the message and what other sacrifices will need to be made on fundamental human rights may continue to be asked for now, only in the smaller circles of human rights groups. Till then, one can, like Bangladesh itself, wait patiently and see.
Tazreena Sajjad is a Phd candidate at American University, Washington D.C. and a contributor for Drishtipat Writers’ Collective