April 19, 2007Foreign Affairs

So where do they think the new leaders will come from?

Dhaka’s generals can’t cook up real politicians

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

One imperfect former prime minister is being dispatched to Saudi Arabia. The military regime in Bangladesh has announced that it will graciously bear the entire cost of air travel of Begum Khaleda Zia and her accompanying family members. Her elder son, Tarique, will not be on that plane. He’s being held back in Dhaka as a hostage (officially, he’s facing corruption charges).

Another imperfect former prime minister is being coerced to stay out of Bangladesh. In view of Shiekh Hasina’s rabble rousing past, the military regime has taken some cautionary steps regarding her return”. Airlines and airports have been told not to allow her into the country. She still says she will return, but is taking her time. It is quite possible that she will extend her trip abroad for some more time.

The regime’s attempts to drive the leaders of two popular political parties is the most obvious manifestation of its general crackdown on politicians. That most of them are corrupt is not in question—regardless of some farcical attempts to find’ evidence against them. The Bangladeshi people might even ignore the army’s own corruption and lack of accountability if it only means that the political space will be cleaned up for good. For Bangladeshis, being a generally youthful lot, might have forgotten how the army’s previous attempts to clean up politics fell flat.

What the Bangladeshi people need to ask themselves is how the generals can restore democracy if their current actions lead to a political vacuum. Politicians, leave alone popular leaders, don’t grow on trees. Hollowing out the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party is not going to produce the next generation of political leaders that Bangladesh will need. Even the Musharraf model’, one that Dhaka’s generals are so fond of, suggests that it is impossible to construct a government without one of those corrupt, imperfect exiled leaders.

There are two possibilities: that the generals know this to be true, in which case all this business of minus-one’ and minus-two’ formulas is merely a facade to capture and stay in power for a long time. Since this requires a degree of foreign acquiescence, Dhaka’s generals will be inclined to listen to Western or Indian concerns to the extent that they are not pressed on domestic affairs. If on the other hand the generals think that they can construct a outcome of their choice by cleaning up the political slates, they are sadly mistaken. For Bangladeshis tired of the daily crises caused by the bitter rivalry between the two begums, it might be hard to imagine anything could be worse. Yet, attempting to govern a country like Bangladesh with the military’s creations and fragments of the old political parties with radical Islamists on the fringe might be just that. It won’t be any better for the rest of the world.

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