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Fear In Fatigues

January 1, 2017

Bangladesh embraces another new year amid optimism, hope and endless resolutions. At the same time it also faces challenges—visible and unseen. Some it can overcome easily by fleshing out good policies provided a committed and honest political leadership at the heart of the government pursues those policies at any cost. Others need collective efforts and surveillance to overcome.

Bangladesh’s steadily growing armed forces and its appetite for businesses are two such challenges. Last year Bangladesh celebrated its 45th victory anniversary with styles. On Victory Day, December 16, Bangladesh’s Armed Forces displayed its military muscle in a military parade at an abandoned air strip, few yards away from PM’s residence. Upgraded Chinese tanks, air-defense system, self-propelled artillery and replica of newly purchased Chinese subs herald the dawn of a strong regional Army that have a record of derailing democracy in the past.

Maneuvers of Russian Mig and Chinese advanced jet trainers enthralled the crowd; many among the crowd, I think, might be wondering what political maneuver the Army would play in coming years.

Fears are not groundless. Ahead of Dhaka City’s mayoral election, agencies leaked telephonic conversation between an opposition BNP leader Sadek Hossain Khoka and an aspirant candidate Mahmudur Rahman Manna in a bid to malign the latter’s image. Eventually, the leaked conversation, which was about stirring a so-called trouble into a public university, made way for Manna’s detention and kept him out of mayoral election. Consequently, current Army chief’s brother became the new mayor.

In some latest development Army’s king-making role surfaced once again. Recently, Obaidul Quader, Minister of Transportation, became the new general secretary of the ruling party. Mr Quader frankly admitted to the press that he was an old friend of current Army chief’s father. Maqbool Ahmed was chosen the party chief of Jamaat-i-Islami, tainted by its ultra-right beliefs and genocidal roles in 1971. A Dhaka University teacher was made an apparatchik into the politburo of Communist Party of Bangladesh. There is a common thread in all these appointments: they all hail from Army chief’s home region Noakhali and its tributary districts. In this part of the world, people at the height of political power feel secured by placing his own people at key positions. Being a successor of Pak Army Intelligence, Bangladesh’s powerful defense army intelligence agency did not discard influencing political processes. It is obvious from old-fashioned regional politics that Army is arduously pursuing its king-making role in politics.

Another aspect that we overlook is its never-ending appetite for businesses. Absence of a strong opposition and decline in Awami popularity help prosper Army-run businesses.

Political turbulence in the first quarter of 2015 led to a shrink in the number of buses. Political cronies and retired law-enforcement officials with some sort of understanding run transport business. Boycott of 2014 general election by BNP and its all-out campaign in 2015 brought a sea change in political landscape. Army Welfare Trust (AWT) rolled out its bus service amid this political vacuum. Within months after its launch, AWT buses are seen on all the major routes of Dhaka. Meanwhile, unresolved arson-attack cases are piling up at police stations.

Govt approved proposal for a new bank for Border Guards Bangladesh. A hue and cry over a coal-fired power plant in Anwara , Chittagong, led to killing of 5 innocent villagers there. The plant is a joint venture between a Bangladeshi conglomerate and a Chinese power company. Amid this chaos, Nau Kalyan Foundation, commercial wing of Bangladesh Navy, crept into burgain. It bagged the site development contract of the plant. Press is reluctant to follow ensued developments there.

Current Mayor of DNCC is advocating to introduce 500 new buses for Dhaka residents who endure dreaded experiences while travelling to and fro on Dhaka streets. Rumors say that Army blessed groups will get the contract. There is indeed iota of truth in that. A fancy restaurant popped up at a corner of national parade-ground managed and run by Armed forces. In Dhaka city’s mega plan, there is no existence of such restaurant. Meantime, mayor sahib kept himself busy driving out businesses, restaurants, schools and hospitals that lack proper documents to operate in posh residential areas. His most recent publicized eviction drive took place at Shyamoli against a theme park for children. He made a publicity stunt by evicting part of a house belongs to a collaborator minister who got killed in 1971. However, he himself is guilty of receiving funds to install surveillance cameras from a bank that is blacklisted by US authorities for funding terror organizations.

Dhaka’s only yellow cab service is run by an Army-blessed company. Army also got contracts for building approach roads in Padma bridge project. New cantonments are being set up all across the country. While the size of Army is getting bigger with new recruits, a recent report revealed that 40% of Bangladeshi youth are inactive. They are not employed, nor do they pursue higher education or training. On one hand, Bangladesh is failing to yield demographic dividends; on the other, it is expanding its armed forces and defense expenditure that makes a dent in its revenue expenditure. Adding troubles to this scenario, remittances took a nose dive and investment, both domestic and foreign, remain stagnant.

Rights bodies are not as much enthusiastic to voice concern over disputed structures/real-estate of armed forces as they are outspoken about illegal structures at Hatirjheel lake. In a BBC Bangla special report, it was alleged that a luxurious hotel’s land had been awarded to AWT at a price much lower than market price.

Unwarranted defense spending spree is also helping the Army. There is a tendency not to follow due procedure in procuring arms and audit reports on defense spending are rarely made public. Draconian laws bar media to report on defense issues deem sensitive to “country’s security”. For instance, Navy purchased two Chinese made subs without floating any international tender. Thai Navy however followed due procedure in inducting subs into its fleet.

Even when due procedure is followed, tender contains crafty clauses and specifications to pick up a predetermined vendor. For instance, Bangladesh Navy called for international tender to procure two maritime helicopters. The tender specifically mentioned requirements for Otomat Mk II anti-ship missile that is produced by MBDM, an Italian arms manufacturer. Recently MBDM awarded license for the production of Otomat engines to Turkish firm Rokestan. There is a growing indication that in defense cooperation Bangladesh Army is aligning with countries where authoritarian regimes are in power and have little concerns for perilous conditions for democratic practices and human rights at home.

Father of a slain American blogger Avijit Roy recently alleged that having killed his son the killers celebrated the murder in that army run hotel.

Despite consuming up a huge proportion of annual expenditure, Army never face any public scrutiny and do not go through any kind of public hearing in the parliament. Moreover controversial officers during political turmoil are allowed to flee abroad.

With overwhelming impunity and a rapacious desire for business, it is stretching shadows over politics to safeguard its interests. To contain its overarching influence and to make it more accountable, govt needs to introduce laws. Furthermore, private sector should be allowed to curve a niche in defense research and production market. It will have a multiplier effects on technological innovation and research industry. Funding for research on physics, chemistry, metallurgy, electronics etc will be easier to get as there will be industries to purchase the final products. Moreover, innovation in medical technology and industry will become much more easier due to an expanding defense-oriented research facilities.

However, all these possibilities will not be materialized if a regimented section keeps the sole entitlement over defense spending. Concentration of defense wealth into the hands of some Army bureaucrats and their civilian dependants may eventually bring unintended consequences and more military misadventures may be offing in distant future.

A hungry and exploited population is always a game changer. Creation and demise of united Pakistan is the reference. Peasants of Bengal were the vanguard in the movement of Pakistan and they voted in millions in favor of it as the scheme sounded favorable to them. As soon as that scheme turned out to be a failure, they tore it down and fought for Bangladesh’s independence. Is there any good in the money that was spent on the pretext of defending a poor Bangladeshi from foreign foes but did not empower him politically and economically?


From → Analysis

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