Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Will Delhi support Tareque’s return to Dhaka politics?

Keen Bangladesh-watchers are beginning to detect signs that in the tricky flux of Bangladesh politics, Indian interests appear increasingly to coincide with that of the BNP. The ultimate objective of both is to keep US involvement and influence in the region to an absolute minimum.

There are four important factors at play that is bringing India and the BNP closer together: (1) Private US expressions of a deep and abiding aversion to Tareque Rahman’s involvement in Bangladesh political life; (2) Western displeasure and vocal criticism of the present AL government which could eventually lead to it’s downfall or a massive elections defeat in 2014; (3) US military presence in the South Asian region could potentially ignite geopolitical tensions which neither India or the BNP would find desirable at this point in time or at any time in the near future; (4) A military role (albeit limited like in 1/11) in Bangladesh politics (which could actually aid US military interests in the country) that neither India or the BNP would find acceptable and which could become a distinct possibility if the country continues on the present destructive path chosen by a highly irrational and vindictive Awami League. Let us examine all four factors.  

US on Tareque
The most explicit expression of US distrust of Tareque Rahman came in a disclosure by a AL delegation of a private conversation with US Congressman Joseph Crowley, co-chairman of Bangladesh Caucus, who is reported to have stated that Tareque should have no future in Bangladesh politics. Some days later Congressman Crowley flatly contradicted the report that he had made any such comments regarding Tareque Rahman’s involvement in politics. It is most likely that Congressman Crowley was deeply annoyed that a comment made in private should have been made public requiring him to issue a rejoinder but that he had made some assertion or remarks regarding Tareque still remains a high possibility. Since at least 2006 Americans in private have been expressing doubts about Tareque and their tolerance of his torture during 1/11 suggests that they would prefer him not to make a comeback. The BNP has thus far remained silent about Tareque’s plans but has not ruled out his return. It is widely believed that Khaleda Zia desires a role for Tareque in Bangladesh politics, to perpetuate the Zia dynasty in power in Bangladesh.

AL Govt’s criticism 
In recent weeks there has been an avalanche of criticism heaped on the AL administration from a number of venerated Western institutions, organizations and agencies such as the World Bank, the European Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, WOAT (World Organization Against Torture) and the State Department. There have also been a number of adverse reports disseminated by the Associated Press, Reuters and the BBC on the abysmal AL performance in government and which has then been distributed and published in The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times as well as a dozen other media and press outlets in the West.  There have in addition been a number of independent news reports appearing in The New York Times, The Economist and The Guardian on the brutal and vindictive regime of Sheikh Hasina focusing in particular on the abduction and murder of labour leader Aminul Islam and BNP Organizing Secretary Ilias Ali. It was, however, on May 24th that the government took the hardest hit with three simultaneous but separate reports published by Amnesty International, the State Department and The Economist which left no doubt about the mood and trend of Western opinion regarding the Awami League and its dismal showing during the last three years.

The Amnesty International Annual Report 2012 made the following observations regarding human rights conditions in Bangladesh, 

‘Extrajudicial executions’ 
RAB allegedly killed at least 54 people in 2011, bringing the total number of people killed since 2004 – when RAB was formed – to more than 700. RAB injured or tortured scores more. In many cases, family members told Amnesty International that victims died after being arrested by RAB and not in an encounter as RAB claimed. The authorities failed to investigate these incidents credibly.

In May, the International Crimes Tribunal, a Bangladeshi court set up in 2010 to try people accused of large-scale human rights abuses during the 1971 war of independence, began to address procedural shortcomings that were rendering its trials unfair. Its amended Rules of Procedure provided for bail, presumption of innocence before guilt is proven, and measures to ensure the protection of witnesses and victims. However, a constitutional ban on the right to challenge the jurisdiction of the Tribunal remained in force.

At least three people died in police custody, allegedly after being tortured. The government announced that criminal charges would be brought against any police personnel found responsible for these deaths. However, no one was charged or prosecuted by the end of the year. The government did not commit to bringing to justice police, RAB or other security personnel who allegedly tortured thousands of individuals in their custody throughout the year.”

The State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices, for 2011 in Bangladesh was no less castigating.

Executive summary
....human rights problems included abuses by security forces, which were responsible for disappearances, custodial deaths, and arbitrary arrest and detention. Prison conditions at times were life threatening, and lengthy pre-trial detention continued to be a problem. An increasingly politicized judiciary exacerbated problems in an already overwhelmed judicial system and constrained access to justice for members of opposition parties. Authorities infringed on citizens’ privacy rights. There were instances in which the government limited freedom of speech and press, self-censorship continued, and security forces harassed journalists. The government curbed freedom of assembly, and politically motivated violence remained a problem. Widespread official corruption remained a serious problem.

…Impunity continued to be a serious problem in several areas. Most members of the security forces acted with impunity, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in particular. The government did not take comprehensive measures to investigate cases of security force killings. Widespread official corruption and related impunity continued. Punishment of officials who committed abuses was predominantly limited to officials perceived to be opponents of the AL-led government.

Official corruption 
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) is the government agency charged with fighting corruption. On February 23, the government appointed a former bureaucrat and a retired judge, both publicly identified with the ruling AL, as commissioners of the ACC. According to a 2010 report by the World Bank, the government tried to undercut the authority of the ACC and severely hampered the prosecution of corruption throughout the country. The reports stated that the government had filed far fewer corruption cases than the caretaker government and that a government commission had recommended that the ACC drop thousands of corruption cases, mostly involving AL members. Members of civil society stated that the government was not serious about fighting corruption and that the ACC was used for politically motivated persecutions. Transparency International Bangladesh asserted that political interference in the ACC’s operations had rendered it a “toothless tiger.”

Both reports received wide and extensive coverage in the Bangladesh press and media revealing to the world the complete and utter failure of the Awami League to govern with any semblance of effectiveness, efficiency or a modicum of competence. The reports instead reveal the AL perchance for brutality, authoritarianism and an autocratic leadership style. It was, however, the article in The Economist entitled, ‘Banged about’ that exposes the venality of the AL regime.

“A young BNP politician abducted a month ago and very probably murdered. Two others killed earlier. Some 33 opposition figures, including senior MPs, dumped in jail this month over a trumped-up case of arson. In all, [Khaleda Zia] says, 3,000 BNP members have been arrested. “It is to intimidate, to create a sense of fear.”

There is plenty more darkness about. In recent months Bangladesh has endured a spate of other mysterious killings—a Saudi diplomat shot dead; a trade-union activist tortured and murdered; a pair of journalists butchered after investigating corruption. This correspondent was trailed in Dhaka by a pair of secret-service men on a motorbike. A rumour of a bizarre coup attempt, in January, was used by the government to get closer political control over the army.

One of the country’s best known figures, Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank, has been harassed for some time. An increasingly paranoid Mrs Hasina sees him as a political threat. This month in Dhaka Hillary Clinton, America’s secretary of state, met the Nobel laureate and assured him of her support. It brought no relief. Ministers snipe at him, and the government has just ordered yet another official review of his bank.

Engine trouble
The list of gripes against the government is long. Corruption is pervasive enough for donors to be alarmed. The World Bank has scrapped funding for a bridge over the Padma river. Japan, the largest single giver of aid, has just sent its deputy prime minister to Dhaka to demand a clean-up. In a case of recent graft, a railway minister, who quit after police found sacks of cash in his aide’s car, was suddenly cleared by an internal inquiry of any corruption and reinstated to the cabinet. Meanwhile, strong doubts persist about the fairness of democracy. The United States’ ambassador in Dhaka this week repeated Mrs Clinton’s warning that the next election must be “participatory”, i.e., run fairly so the opposition will take part.”

Anyone reading this litany of corruption and abuse and gross violations of human rights might conclude that the government is likely to face imminent downfall as a consequence of a popular uprising or massive defeat in national elections if freely and fairly held. In these circumstances the Indians are likely to start reconsidering their options instead of just backing a losing horse and this process appears to have already begun with New Delhi also calling for participatory polls with the inclusion of all the main opposition parties.

The Economist next raises the tantalizing prospect of a change in Indian strategy in regard to Bangladesh:

“Most telling would be a shift in India’s attitude. Long a close ally of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League—cheering her crackdown on Islamic extremists and insurgents from India’s northeast, and being open to more trade—India’s ruling Congress party may now, sensibly, be hedging its bets. Pranab Mukherjee, India’s finance minister, called on Mrs Zia recently, inviting her back to Delhi. Mrs Zia chuckles that she will go after Delhi’s summer heat is past. She also calls the neighbour a “friend”, a possible hint of change in a party that often seeks popularity by bashing India.”

The Economist repeats the mantra in yet another article titled ‘Hello, Delhi’ (published on its website on May 24th) suggesting that it is time India abandon its blind support for the AL noting, “India now seems to be hedging its bets between the two parties. But if it still wants to have a functioning democracy next door, it needs to speak out far louder in favour of it.” It is interesting that anti-Indian rhetoric emanating from the BNP has been much reduced in recent weeks and was in any case always half-hearted with the party preferring accommodation with New Delhi rather than direct confrontation. In a recent speech in Gazipur, Khaleda Zia said her party would be able to resolve the long running issues between Bangladesh and India through discussions on the basis of equal respect and mutual benefit. She also referred to her recent meeting with Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee in Dhaka on May 6th. Khaleda said that Pranab had told her that India wants to build up relations with the people in Bangladesh, not with any particular party. She said the Indian Finance Minster made the remarks as he understands that the people are the source of power. Khaleda also remarked that the AL had thought that they have a last shelter (in India) but they are now losing that. (The Financial Express - BNP to resolve problems with India thru’ dialogue: Khaleda, May 13, 2012).

 Notably the meeting between Khaleda Zia and Pranab Mukherjee took place a week after the AL delegation met with US Congressman Joseph Crowley in which he allegedly denied a role for Tareque Rahman in the political future of Bangladesh.

If a grand bargain could be reached between India and the BNP it is patently obvious what the conditions of New Delhi would be to reaching such an agreement and it would not be too onerous a task for the BNP to deliver on these demands as half the task has already been accomplished by the AL. If the BNP were to strike a deal with New Delhi this could mean a guaranteed path to power with the party’s only condition being that Tareque Rahman be allowed back into political life, ideally positioned to lead the country, even if this incurs the wrath and animosity of the United States which would not be of too great a concern to India which would like some distance and distrust to exist between Dhaka and Washington. This political solution also holds out the added benefit for New Delhi as Tareque Rahman is equally distrusted by Beijing for his role in allowing the opening of a Taiwanese diplomatic and trade centre in Dhaka during the last BNP government. 

US military presence 
It is now no secret that the United States policy of pivoting towards the Asia Pacific region has given new strategic importance to Bangladesh in the minds of decision makers in Washington. PROBE news magazine reporting on a discussion programme organized by Bangladesh Institute for Peace and Strategic Studies, quotes the US Ambassador Dan Mozena who spoke warmly of Bangladesh’s growing importance to America, “Bangladesh is now of deep strategic interest to the US. This is the biggest change in US Bangladesh relations over the last 10 years.”

Most crucially, Ambassador Mozena appeared to reject any speculation that the US may be interacting through a third party, India, in Bangladesh. He said US engagement with Bangladesh was direct. They didn’t have to deal with Bangladesh through India, he added. The formulation of US foreign policy independent of Indian influence will probably be of some concern to New Delhi, especially where it relates to the South Asia region. It would, therefore, be of some interest to compare contemporary attitudes and perspectives of Indian analysts and their American counterparts and how they view their respective countries roles and strategic interests in the wider South Asia and Asia Pacific region.

America’s renewed interest in South Asia and Asia Pacific region is based on its pivot policy that was neatly explained in a recent article in The Diplomat, (How U.S. Must Adapt in Asia, May 23, 2012).

“… [The] Obama administration has recently announced its policy toward the Asia-Pacific region, which emphasizes a “pivot” in U.S. foreign policy. This reflects the rediscovery of the importance of the trans-Pacific axis in the 21st century, from security to the economy. It seems that two words – engagement and enlargement – capture the basic direction of the Obama administration’s policy toward the Asia-Pacific region. This is quite similar to that of the Clinton administration of the mid-1990s.

The U.S. policy contains the following five elements: strengthening traditional alliances; strengthening partnerships with other regional countries; managing and developing a cooperative relationship with China; participation in and working with multilateral regional mechanisms; and developing and strengthening trade relations (KORUS, FTA and TPP). How the Obama administration will implement its Asia policy remains to be seen, but a number of concerns should be taken into account in the implementation process.”

The pivot policy inherently contains another more nefarious policy of encirclement of China which is admitted to by the author Kang Choi, “Against this backdrop, China sees some of this as an effort to encircle it, and four of the five elements of U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific region could be considered encircling measures.” Indian analysts prefer to use the word containment and are less coy about what they expect from US foreign policy in South Asia. Indian analyst Subhash Kapila in an article for SAAG initially puts forward the China containment policy as the principle reason for US engagement with Bangladesh (and Myanmar) but that US military involvement in the South Asia region is also the cause of intense discomfort to India is only vaguely alluded to:    

“The Eastern Flank of the Asia Pacific rested on three countries—-Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. While the United States had a Strategic Partnership with India of sorts, there was no such linkage with Myanmar and Bangladesh. Notably, Myanmar in American military perceptions was a military-client state of China and Bangladesh too was indebted to China as countervailing power to India. Strategically, it would be a strong American policy imperative to unloosen Myanmar and Bangladesh from their strategic linkages with China.

Further, for successful implementation of the US strategic pivot to Asia and its corollary of China Containment Strategy, the American security architecture had to incorporate Myanmar and Bangladesh in that architecture … Bangladesh figures in the strategic calculus of the United States militarily in the Navy and Air Force domains. In the United States China Containment Strategy, with Bangladesh strongly in its fold eventuality exists where the US Navy and US Air Force could use Bangladeshi bases. Politically, our policy planners view offshore oil-blocks only in economic perspectives. But United States policy planners view these in strategic and military terms. The United States strategic formulations would be to deny to China access to and use of respective offshore oil-blocks of Myanmar and Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal. It must be remembered that an important component of US China Containment Strategy would be the ‘energy strangulation’ of China.” (South Asia Analysis Group, May 21, 2012)

This is certainly provocative thinking and it is clear that the pivot policy of the United States is only acceptable to India in so as far as it serves Indian interests i.e. the containment of China. According to current Indian thinking the pivot policy can be adequately implemented in South Asia through joint cooperation between the US and Indian militaries and bilateral agreements or arrangements with third countries in the region are therefore unnecessary. This is the actual import of Subhash Kapila’s concluding paragraph:

“India has to note that the United States has for years militarily activated the Arabian Sea; the United States is now in the process of militarily activating the Bay of Bengal hitherto fore viewed by Indian policy establishment as exclusive military backwaters of India. The military connotations of such move whether in complementary role to US strategies or even in terms of India’s independent strategic postures need to be seriously contemplated by India’s policy planners.”

Such subtlety of language and euphemistic expressions are often lost to American readers but the general meaning of the paragraph can be interpreted as ‘Stay the hell away from the Bay of Bengal. This is our little lake to piss in not yours.’ Presumably if the Indians could install a Prime Minister in Dhaka thoroughly distrusted by the United States it would thwart any deeper military engagement between Bangladesh and America and thereby keep the US military some distance from the Bay of Bengal or force them to act exclusively through the Indian navy.  As I have mentioned elsewhere, the Indians consider South Asia its exclusive zone or sphere of influence, and both China and the US are seen as mere interlopers. This is only now being understood by American policy makers and military strategists. 

Politics and military 
A military intervention in Bangladesh is the least desirable outcome for not just the Awami League but also the BNP and India. On one side it would keep the present crop of aged leaders out of politics for several years and in all probability eliminate them entirely from the political scene. In the Indian perspective, the military option is anathematic as the Bangladesh Army is inherently anti-Indian in outlook and still holds a deep and lasting grievance over the Pilkhana mutiny and massacre that occurred in 2009 and which many blame on the Indian external intelligence services (RAW) for having orchestrated. A military government in Dhaka would also likely be more open to the American and Chinese advances and would likely try to deepen engagements with both countries leaving the Indians out in the cold.

Due to the strained and increasingly fraught political atmosphere in Bangladesh the AL has on several occasions warned of a series of vague and unspecified conspiracies to install a military government in Dhaka. The Economist has opined that on at least one occasion the conspiracy (involving Maj. Zia) was used by the government to get closer political control over the army. Industries Minister Dilip Barua had apprehended, some weeks ago, that another 1/11-like episode may take place again as the anti-liberation forces were engaged in conspiracies to destabilize the country. ( The Financial Express - Barua smells recurrence of 1/11, May 16, 2012)

Similarly, Sheikh Hasina has also warned of a renewed conspiracy to implement the minus-2 formula that had originally failed during the 1/11 takeover. (Daily Sun - PM must initiate dialogue with opposition, May 25, 2012) While the AL may blame the anti-liberations forces and unnamed external agencies for these threats it is clear that this present spate of trouble has been wrought by the mismanagement and mis-governance of the country by the AL. With the possibility that the AL may be removed from power through a popular uprising or in national elections (fair and freely held) it may be better for New Delhi to secretly back the BNP and Tareque Rahman rather than opt for a military takeover.

BY : MBI Munshi.