By Brian Shoesmith
February 18, 2014
What is it about America and Bangladesh? At times one thinks they look through binoculars but forget to take the lens caps off and see only a reflection of their own geopolitical projections.
Take the lens cap off, and an unexpected reality emerges that doesn’t fit the view constructed and promulgated by the Washington think tanks, which leads to much hand-wringing and nay saying.
William B Milam’s piece from the Pakistani The Express Tribune (reprinted in the Dhaka Tribune, Feb 2) is a spectacular example of this.
Milam informs us breathlessly that revolution in “this century” have occurred largely in Muslim majority countries, and goes on to suggest that the most egregious of all has occurred in Bangladesh, by stealth. The election of January 5 is “most likely to produce a purely authoritarian state.”
He arrived at this startling conclusion after a brief survey, cherry picking really, of Edmund Burke, so beloved of conservative commentators, but with no analysis of the actual events leading up to the election of 2014.
Underlying his assertions is an implicit assumption that the BNP is the wronged party in all of the transactions contributing to what has now become almost universally known as “a farcical election.”
A term developed and peddled endlessly by the BNP ideologues because they had no other tune in their song-book and adopted, without question it seems, by the commentariat. Maybe it is time to redress the balance.
If we are to be balanced then we have to acknowledge that Sheikh Hasina took a calculated gamble and went forward into an election without resorting to a caretaker government, against the wishes of the civil society, which holds great sway with Western policy and news-makers.
Milam doesn’t care to mention that this very system was abused during a two-year long military-backed interregnum, initially lauded by the civil society. The BNP asserted that a fair election could not be conducted without a caretaker government without stating why.
It seems the mutual distrust between the two party leaders is understood by all, which leads to public doubts about a Westminster-style election, as reflected in the Dhaka Tribune’s own polling.
But the fact remains that Hasina alone did hand over power to a caretaker government in 2001 only to see her party, after it lost the elections, brutalised by BNP and its Islamist ilk. In a sense, amnesia rules; people conveniently forget it is the BNP that has repeatedly failed to give fair elections. This time Hasina offered a compromise, an all-party temporary government, and even the crucial home ministry for the opposition, which was rejected by the BNP.
Interestingly, the same DT poll now shows, after the horse bolted as it were, that 56% of the population thinks that an all-party government can be an acceptable method of holding the polls. There is no mention of any of these facts in Milam’s strong denunciations of not just the AL but of one of the rare success stories in the developing Muslim world.
If the election was a farce it was because the BNP made it a farce. They were not coerced into abstaining from the election but chose to, thereby opening up the field for a masterful display of ruthless politics on the part of Hasina.
What’s more, BNP signed on to its Islamist ally Jamaat’s campaign of terror that claimed hundreds of lives. Both the scale and the method of killings - targeting civilians, such as commuters in buses - was unprecedented.
Tactically the BNP did not try to leverage public opinion by raising issues of bank scandals, the Padma Bridge scandal, BCL hooliganism, but chose to align itself, when given the opportunity, with the misogynistic rhetoric of Hefazat.
While this deeply antagonistic politics is harmful and demoralising, it is hardly grounds for claiming that: “Bangladesh, which was once hailed as a paragon of political and social modernization in the Islamic world, will join the overcrowded ranks of authoritarian states with corrupted extractive institutions.”
In any case, this argument is totally ahistorical. When did the US ever regard Bangladesh as a paragon of modernisation? Do we have to remind them of Kissinger’s infamous slogan? Have they forgotten the US role in seeking to prevent the creation of Bangladesh? And how many “authoritarian states with corrupted extractive institutions” have the Americans supported for strategic reasons in the past?
The number of countries, from Latin America to Middle East, and farther beyond, who are still reeling from America’s interference in their domestic affairs during the Cold War, makes for a most sobering cautionary tale. So what is it the US wants from Bangladesh, and why is it so unhappy with the current political situation?
A number of possible reasons spring to mind. The Awami League is still perceived as too close to India and the uneasy relationship between India and the US is displaced on to Bangladesh. Possibly.
The BNP is seen as being more compliant to American strategic needs in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Maybe.
It is clear that there is a multiplicity of factors influencing the US position on Bangladesh. Despite this there remains one overriding issue; the American failure to read the signs and act accordingly.
From the outset of the election campaign the Americans seemed to accept implicitly the BNP agenda that it was the wronged party, and, like that party, never countenanced an alternative.
One suspects they expected Hasina and the AL to cave into BNP demands in the face of public opinion. When this didn’t happen, like the BNP, they became a policy-free zone.
To cover this omission they have to resort to Burke, extrapolate and make wild claims about the future of Bangladesh, conveniently ignoring the fact that of the two parties it is the AL that is most likely to deliver on the Americans’ ongoing “war on terror.”
Commentators like Milam consciously omit any reference to the links between the BNP and the Jamaat. One can only wonder what would be written if the BNP had acted sensibly, shed its links to the Islamists, contested the election, and won.
Headlines like: “Bangladesh becomes haven for terrorists.” Like all of us, the US has to live with its contradictions, and it doesn’t help when short-term disappointment overrides long-term possibilities.