Can armed forces supervise the smooth transition of power?

M. Shahidul Islam

An old adage says an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The stone-walled silence of the government – and a section of the media and the civil society – in criticizing and stopping the ongoing mayhem in the country is not only mysterious, it demonstrates a kind of antipathy that can be interpreted as abetting the crime of killing the innocents by the state machineries.
After nearly 200 deaths and 1000s of injuries of unarmed protesters – coupled with the burning of vehicles, locomotives, shops and valuable infrastructures – the Leader of the Opposition felt it incumbent to say publicly that the ‘armed forces would not sit idle by when anarchy reigns supreme.’
To qualify her assertion, Begum Khaleda Zia reasoned during her Bogra speech:
“They (armed forces) impose peace and order abroad. Their credibility gets hurt if the same cannot be done at home.”
Innocuous and commonsensical may sound the reasoning of the Opposition Leader, but her comments became a potent weapon in the government’s armoury to fight a battle that the regime and its supporters in the civic society had already lost. The political debacle of the government is amply crystallized by the withering away of the prospect of any rapprochement with the opposition camp.  As of last week, the 18 party alliance has already gone for the oust government movement while veteran BNP leader Moudud Ahmed said on Tuesday that ‘the opposition parties would not join the poll under the existing Constitution.  This latest demand may have nothing new in it, given that reinstating the caretaker dispensation has long been a demand from the opposition camp, and, it can only come about through another Constitutional amendment. But the reiteration of it at this critical moment of history carries enough significance.
If our military can be trusted by the UN to stand between warring factions and organize and conduct fair elections abroad, what’s so wrong about doing the same within the country, so goes the reasoning? One could smell some odour of conspiracy in such an assertion if the military was found to be too eager to jump into the political bandwagon, which, however, does not seem to be the case as yet; given what happened to many military leaders of the past, including the Moeen U Ahmed et al, who had gone beyond their mandate in 2007 to fix the political rot under a somewhat similar circumstance.  Then again, the fact that the military did not make any move so far to save public lives in the midst of an unprecedented slaughter of unarmed political activists from the opposition camp is itself a laudable act. The Opposition Leader did not fail to appreciate the military for such display of forbearance amidst intense provocations.
Regardless, how long this madness should be allowed to prolong is a question creating buzzes all around, not only among opposition stalwarts. And, why should the government think its decision to hold an election under the incumbent administrative and Constitutional set up must be accepted by the opposition? Did the AL comply with similar prescriptions in the past? And, did not the AL use the military to derive illicit political dividends in the past?  Historically, the AL is the only party- excepting the parties of military commanders like Zia and Ershad- which has misused the military for its political harvest more than any other party.
In 1996, the incumbent home minister MK Alamgir was found complicit in fomenting a revolution in the civil administration on the AL’s behest, as a prelude to triggering a similar revolt within the military in which the incumbent minister for veteran affairs, Capt (retd) Tajul Islam, was directly and incontrovertibly involved.
In 2007, another major conspiracy was unearthed when a seemingly gullible military command compelled President Yazudding Ahmed to declare emergency rules, postpone election indefinitely, and, without showing any regard for the constitutional stipulations, a military-backed care taker regime was allowed to illegally cling onto power for over two years. The ongoing tragedies, inclusive of the BDR massacre in 2009, are linked to that Constitutional derailment of politics.
Besides, the pre-election promise made then by the now incumbent PM to indemnify the military and the caretaker regime of all the unconstitutional deeds, as well as the landslide victory of the AL in the 2008 election held under the same military-backed administration, do not help rebut the well-documented nexus between the military and the AL leadership to catapult the latter into the helm of political power.
However, it’s one thing to squabble over the historical sensitivities and the semantics, quite another to resolve a conflict to uphold vital national interest. At this particular moment in history, there is yet another angle to this diabolic degeneration of our political discourses which is of more vital concern.
Objectively seen, the government has already used, unsuccessfully, a section of the military from the RAB and the BGB to quell the ongoing unrest. If the deployment of the army can prevent further bloodshed and save national resources, what’s so wrong about it? Besides, existing laws do allow military’s coming to the street in aid of civil power in the instances of grave threats to national security, occasions of natural disaster, and, during other dire necessities.
On such backdrops, it’s unfortunate that brazen threats were made by at least two senior cabinet ministers to bring sedition charges against the Opposition Leader for her comment about the military’s likely intervention to stop the ongoing bloodshed. One could entertain such a prospect only if the Opposition Leader was found to have called the military to intervene in politics by overthrowing the government. Quite to the contrary, what madam Zia said is so trendy and timely that this kind of conversations has long been whizzing about in the talk shows and other informal and formal discussion forums.  Given where the nation stands now, what then are the options? Amidst an atmosphere of intractability having overtaken the political culture, something must be done to bring an end to this unwarranted debate and the ongoing bloodshed.
Meanwhile, if the aim of our collective conscience is to preserve democracy at any cost, it’s better to use our own resources, including the armed forces, before the situation degenerates into something uncontrollable. Let’s not forget that, with every passing day, the nation is moving toward a direction whereupon intervention by external forces may become a reality in coming weeks.  However, before it’s too late, the parliament should pass laws to empower the President to appoint the armed forces for a specified time as the neutral umpire to organize and conduct polls in future elections. This move will pacify the opposition’s main demand to re-instate the care taker government for holding polls on one hand, and, save the nation from further bloodshed on the other.  It will also dissuade the military from extra-constitutional adventures of the kinds that have defiled and delayed the democratic progression of this nation many times in the past.
The author is a former military officer, diplomat, and an expert in civil – military relations. His published books include (1) Politics of Soldiers (1988) and (2) Strategic issues in Bangladesh Politics (1996).
Source: Weekly Holiday

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