CONCLUDING PART Military-installed caretaker govt, or a ‘consortium’ govt?

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by rahnuma ahmed

Chief Advisor of Caretaker Government of Bangladesh Fakhruddin Ahmed (L) walks next to Bangladesh's Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina Wajed (R), whose party won a landslide victory in the just conducted parliamentary elections. Dhaka, December 31, 2008.

As I conclude my series on the consortium government, I’d like to let my readers know that what I’ve been writing (7 parts, this included) was a mere scratch of the tip of the iceberg. That, since the more I delved, the more intrigued I became, I have decided to continue my research, and will probably write about some of the themes later, in these pages, after having examined them in greater detail.

At a more general level, I have argued that terming Fakhruddin’s regime as a “military-installed caretaker government,” which, when it had been coined, had helped to unmask the character of the regime, had helped to expose its repeated objectives of “strengthening Bangladesh’s democratic order” (Fakhruddin) http://tinyurl.com/39pheg as being rhetorical moves concealing ulterior motives, but however, that, a critical look, aided by hindsight, leads me to believe that one needs to further our analysis, that forces which were then identified as being supporters of the regime, i.e., shusheel shomaj, and western diplomats, were intrinsic to the regime, formed its constitutive elements.

This has led me to put forth the notion of a “consortium” government, one constituted by the confluence of national and international forces, because “1/11” — the illegal and unconstitutional takeover of power on January 11, 2007 by a regime claiming cover under the constitutional provisions of caretaker government, the imposition of emergency rule for 2 years, suspension of fundamental rights ensured by the constitution — could not have been made to happen by any of its constitutive elements singly i.e., the military leadership, shusheel shomaj, western governments.

Having recapitulated these central ideas, I would now like to return to what I had been discussing yesterday, i.e., to the Dhaka University student protests of 20th August 2007 which had spread like wildfire to other campuses, and to city streets as well, joined in by common people who had been strongly affected, adversely so, by the markedly elitist and insulated actions of the regime.

By 22nd August afternoon, the military leadership/DGFI went into action. All public universities were closed down, dormitories had to be vacated by evening. Curfew was imposed. Mobile telephone networks were shut down countrywide. As large masses of people rushed to reach homes before curfew began, joint forces and police picked out young men from the crowds, and beat those who’d identified themselves as university students. Journalists were also targeted, they were picked up while doing their rounds and beaten. Faculty members, including senior ones, were remanded, tortured, as were countless students, belonging to both Dhaka and Rajshahi universities.

A staggering eighty two thousand unnamed persons were charged in nearly fifty cases by the police. Video footage and still photographs were impounded to identify those who had taken part in the protests; some of these protests had been violent.

The protests were “initially spontaneous,” said Anwar Choudhury, the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh (of Bangladeshi origin). But it soon became “something much bigger, something much more sinister. A lot of money and coordination came into the equation.” (Daily Time (Pakistan) August 28, 2007).
No mention of the wave of beatings, of arrests and imprisonments, of remand and torture. Of the unnamed 82,000 charged. Nor, of Anwar Ali, the rickshaw driver who had been shot dead in Rajshahi by security forces during campus protests.

Students who were affiliated to political parties, government sources alleged, had joined in the protests. No reason for them not to, if one considers the prevalent situation, a culture of fear due to mass arrests in the name of anti-corruption drives, the rise in commodity prices, a seeping distrust about the actual intentions of the regime, compounded by the suspension of fundamental rights.

It should not be surprising either that in some cases complex reasons lay behind concealing political identities, it becomes clearer as one sits and sifts through large bodies of material, both printed, and uploaded on the internet. Khomenee Ehsan, a contributor to Joruri Obostha. Rashtro o Rajniti (2009) wrote about how he and other students who had joined in the protests under the banner of ‘Nirjaton Protirodh Cchatra Andolon’ (Students against oppression), had been more or less successful in building a name for themselves as “an alternative student organisation” but had unfortunately been forced to retreat and disband, because they had been unjustly and incorrectly labelled as being close associates of “an Islamic student organisation”; as being “fundamentalists.” More recently, as war crimes trials gain momentum, Ehsan has posted a piece on his Facebook account where he describes his father as being a “hardworking and sacrificing” moposshol leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, of he himself having become enamoured of Golam Azam when introduced to the latter by his father as an adolescent. The name of his post is telling, “Why I Respect and Love Golam Azam” (January 16, 2012).  The passage of time, Bangladesh’s unresolved quandaries, and attempts at resolving them (the war crimes tribunal, and a younger generation of Jamaat’s supporters trying to brazen it?) have helped ‘out’ untruths earlier concealed from the public.

But, there are other dimensions to this tale. While the incident informs us of what should have been obvious, i.e., that different political forces had joined in the student protests, including those generally regarded as being anti-democratic because of their history of collaboration with the Pakistan army in 1971 (Jamaat-e-Islami), it pushes me to reflect further, on how the naming of the January 11 takeover as “1/11” by its supporters (to popularise it?) fell flat on its face because the US-led wars of occupation post-9/11 does not have many supporters here, definitely not among the common people. It is a truth which the ruling elite has chosen to ignore. Chooses to continue doing so.

The passage of time has further advantages as new information has come to light since, which when placed alongside the timeline of events, help us to probe further, deeper. One such timeline, available on the internet, notes that the emergency government had backtracked on its “plans to exile the two feuding former prime ministers” on April 26, 2007. That, it had refocused its efforts on “threaten[ing] the women with corruption charges” if they remained within the country. A WikiLeaked cable confirms this, it notes that after having “failed to exile the two ladies, the next option for the government is to take Hasina and then, for the sake of bipartisanship, Zia to trial on corruption and perhaps other charges” (signed by then US ambassador Patricia Butenis, June 4, 2007).

WikiLeaked cables from New Delhi to Washington reveal a collusion of western diplomats/governments with regional ones. At a meeting held on April 27, 2007, between a joint secretary of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Mohan Kumar, the political counsellor at the US embassy in Delhi, Ted Osius, and the British High Commission’s then-political counsellor in Delhi, Alex Hall, they agreed that the caretaker government had reached a “crossroads by allowing Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia to return,” that, “such a move weakens the government and will force it to reassert itself in some way” (“Hasina, Khaleda’s return put CTG at ‘crossroads’,” UNB Dhaka, December 18, 2010). The cable also notes that the caretaker government had “gone back” on its decision to remove Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia from the scene.

Gone back? But when was the decision made, and by who? Surely, it is up to the people to decide what they will do with their leaders?

WikiLeaks Bangladesh cables also reveal rather incriminating information about Dr Muhammad Yunus. A cable sent to Washington’s superiors on April 16, 2007, notes that Dr Yunus had reportedly told Geeta Pasi, deputy head of the US embassy, Staff Advisor Manpreet Singh Anand of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and another US embassy official, the “two ladies” had to be removed from politics. Dr Yunus had jokingly suggested that they could be packed off to work for the United Nations. He had been full of praise for the caretaker government, “Be patient with this government. Its agenda is beautiful,” and had urged the diplomatic community to discourage the army from entering politics, “‘hit them as hard as you can’ to warn them off that course.” He had also expressed his wish to “earn my way to power from the people” (“Yunus wanted Khaleda, Hasina exiled,” bdnews24.com, September 20, 2011). I will not repeat a point I had earlier made about Baridhara being the kebla, but not only for politicians alone, also, for those belonging to the social elite.

Dr Yunus’ decision changed a bit more than a fortnight later, when he withdrew his plans of entering active politics. Whether his reasons were entirely personal, or, whether it was influenced by the regime’s “backtracking of plans,” I do not know. For, as the World Bank’s South Asia vice-president Praful C. Patel had pointed out later, “the two ladies have [a] very strong and powerful power base.” Earning his “way to power from the people” would definitely have been harder with the leaders remaining in Bangladesh.

Some of us might it find amusing that with increased calls for punishing those who had usurped power, also raised in the suggestions forwarded by the parliamentary standing committee on education which has investigated the events of August 20th, the central players of 1/11 have responded by claiming innocence and/or sheer denial.

According to press reports, Fakhruddin claims to have known nothing about the atrocities committed on students and teachers, to have done his level best to “defuse” the situation. Whereas Moeen has put the blame for excesses on “field-level officers,” and denied knowledge about university teachers and students being interrogated.

Anwar Choudhury, then British High Commissioner, who, as a press report notes, is seen by “many political analysts and parties as [having been] one of the brains behind the changeover” has similarly denied allegations. No, he did not orchestrate the consortium coup. “I categorically deny any involvement in the 1/11 shift in the political scenario.” He has been strongly defended by his successor, Stephen Evans who refuted allegations that the diplomatic community in Bangladesh had a hand in “calling the army out of [the] barracks” in January 2007. The outgoing German ambassador Frank Meyke has also stressed that diplomats in Dhaka had played no part in prompting a state of emergency, but did add however, “…once it happened, we supported it.” (“Anwar Choudhury denies 1/11 changeover role,” bdnews24.com, August 5, 2009).

The UN resident representative Renata Dessallien’s press release is still on the UN Bangladesh’s website, I have a scanned copy as well, as I’m sure do many other Bangladeshis.

At the April 27, 2007 meeting in New Delhi, between an Indian official and US and UK diplomats, all three men had reportedly agreed that their respective countries should agree on a core message to take back to the Fakhruddin government, this included “voter list reforms.

During the consortium government’s rule, I had expressed serious alarm about the manner in which voters had been registered in order to rid the electoral rolls which we then had, of an excess of 1.2 crore voters (BNP-Jamaat government), to ensure “free, fair and credible elections.” The new registration had been sponsored and coordinated by the Election Commission, the Bangladesh army had been the operational agency. It had yielded a computerised voter list, consisting of a data-base of 80 million 500 thousand 723 voters with photographs and fingerprints.

What was less public knowledge, as I had pointed out, was that the four fingerprints of each voter had been captured with BIO-key’s fingerprint ID software (FBI-certified fingerprint readers) and, that the estimated 400 million fingerprints were expected to become the “largest biometric deployment in the world.” Further inquiry on my part had revealed that the voter roll project had been a “co-operative venture” between the Bangladesh army, BIO-Key in the US, and TigerIT in Bangladesh (their “systems integrator on the ground”), that, the Cofounder of TigerIT Bangladesh Limited, “an offshore technology campus of TigerIT, USA, with its corporate headquarters located in Northern Virginia,” was a person by the name of Joseph Fuisz. I had written in my column, while the current regime’s voter registration list has, in all probability, lessened the likelihood of fraudulent votes, it has probably laid the groundwork for installing a new regime of surveillance, one that will be deployed against the citizens of Bangladesh (“National ID Cards. In the Interest of Surveillance?” New Age, September 29, 2008).

My partner Shahidul Alam, had gone to the US then, he had e-mailed Joseph Fuisz and sought an appointment. The latter had written back to say he would be away; Shahidul had expressed interest in meeting his father, Richard Fuisz, while in Washington. That too, didn’t work out because of delays and lags (detailed in “Against Surveillance. More on the National ID Card,” by Shahidul Alam, Rahnuma Ahmed, New Age, October 13, 2008).

Imagine my surprise when I recently came across the name of Richard Fuisz; it is an unusual name, it made recollection easier, but I checked of course, to be sure. A former journalist and Congressional aide, Susan Lindauer, now a 9/11 whistle-blower, who was “arrested, imprisoned without trial, declared mentally incompetent when she demanded to stand trial, and eventually released” after 5 years in prison, who claims that the US government had “foreknowledge” of 9/11 — has named Richard Fuisz as having been her “contact in the CIA.”

In hindsight, it seems to me that the voter roll, which Renata Dessallien had glowingly described as “a truly historic achievement,” had also added, “If there were a Nobel Prize for voter lists, Bangladesh would be the clear winner!” — needed to be completed before the consortium government exited. The largest biometric deployment in the world (deposited with the CIA?), and not a peep out of shusheel shomaj.

Yesterday’s news reports that US special forces are currently stationed in Bangladesh, hardly lessens my alarm (New Age, March 3, 2012).

In late January 2007, a Pakistani parliamentarian had told Shahidul, “You appear to have taken a chapter from our book and refined it.”

These words have haunted me since, more so now, when I look at the ever-deepening crisis in Pakistan. Poised at the cliff’s edge.

[this version has been tweaked]

Published in New Age, Sunday, March 4, 2012.

Part VI
Part V
Part IV
Part III
Part II
Part I

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