Friday, August 26, 2011

Ministers Smile While People Die And Suffer

The smiling Communication Minister Syed Abul Hossain has become a symbol of government’s inefficiency and indifference to public sufferings on the roads.

“He can only smile. And his smile brings deaths to thousands of people,” said Nazimuddin Nazim a member of Bangladesh Passenger Welfare Association. Addressing a condolence meeting for filmmaker Tareq Masud and ATN newsman Ashfaq Munier at National press club last Monday, he ridiculed the communications minister and blamed his ‘irresponsibility’ for deaths in road accidents.
The communications minister has been under fire from within and outside of the government over the deplorable road conditions that caused many tragic accidents on the highways lately.

Ruling alliance MP Rashed Khan Menon has asked the minister in parliament to quit. Awami League MPs Tofail Ahmed, Suranjit Sengupta and Tarana Halim, Mujibur Rahman Chunnu of Jatiya Party and independent MP Fazlul Azim also censured him. Suranjit blamed the cabinet for the deplorable conditions of the roads and urged upon it to quickly sort out the mess.

Meanwhile, demanding improved roads, the transport owners have stopped running buses on the Dhaka-Mymensingh, Dhaka-Tangail and 11 other routes touching Gazipur. Kushtia Transport Owners-Workers Oikya Parishad also enforced a transport strike last Monday demanding road repair before Eid. General Secretary of district bus-minibus owners’ group Abul Fazal Selim said that they were compelled to go on strike at 20 different routes of north-south and western zone as the administration did not take any step to repair Kushtia-Ishwardi road before Eid.”

Almost 1,500 kilometres of the country’s 21,040 kilometres highways are in bad shape, says Communication Minister Abul Hossain.

The High Court on Aug 17 asked the government to submit a report on the total allocation and expenditure for the development and repair of the roads and transport sector in the past five years.

Last Saturday the Communication Minister said he was ‘sorry’ for the situation but refused to resign as demanded by many. “The communication ministry is working fine. Consequences will be grave for those who tried to push me,” an undaunted Abul Hossain told the media at Rangpur on the following day. 
The other cabinet minister who came into focus on road safety issue is Shahjahan Khan, a former Ganobahini leader now concurrently holding the position of Executive President of Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation and the portfolio of Shipping Minister in Shekh Hasina’s cabinet.

Shipping minister Shahjahan Khan’s name came into public discussion after he had proposed to issue more driving licenses without following rules. Admitting that his organization had proposed to issue driving licenses to 24,630 drivers exempting them from written tests as most of them cannot read or write, Shahjahan Khan confessed at a press conference.

Reacting to such a preposterous move to issue driving licenses to illiterates, ruling Awami League MP Tarana Halim raised her voice and threatened to go on hunger strike. Tarana Halim says she will fast unto death if ‘unskilled’ drivers get licenses as proposed by shipping minister and transport workers leader Shajahan Khan. Tarana, whose nephew Saif Ahmed had been killed in a road accident in 2009, demanded that the licenses issued to the ‘unskilled’ drivers be cancelled.

The chief of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Mizanur Rahman last Monday urged the prime minister to sack the ‘incompetent and ‘unsuccessful’ ministers from cabinet. “Please remove the inept ministers and it will be the best gift for the country’s people from the government ahead of the Eid-ul-Fitr,” he said at a discussion in Dhaka. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sundarban Put In Jeopardy

THE decision of the High Court to vacate the order on maintenance of a status quo on the much-talked-about coal-fired power plant near Sundarban, without hearing on the rule issued on the government in March 1 this year on why the plant should not be declared illegal, has effectively paved the way for two 1,320MW power plants to be established only nine kilometres away from the world’s largest mangrove forest and a world heritage site. The government is likely to sign the agreement during Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka in September 6-7, following a memorandum of understanding already signed between the Power Development Board and India’s National Thermal Power Corporation. Considering the binding obligations that come with an international agreement signed between two head of governments, the likelihood of any other proceedings or development halting the establishment of the plant in the future now looks slim. 

The court, meanwhile, is set to hear the rule in October, after its month-long vacation. It appears that in its haste to find answers to acute power shortage as well expedite friendly relations with India, the government has put in jeopardy one of the country’s finest treasures, and the court, by vacating the status quo, has all but played into its hands.

From the very outset when the proposed thermal power plant came to public knowledge, there have been strong protests demanding the project be scrapped, both from environmental activists as well as locals at Rampal, Bagerhat, the proposed site for the plant. While local farmers lament the potential loss of arable land, environmentalists point out that the coal-fired power plants would drastically reduce the diversity of vegetation, wildlife and micro-organisms in Sundarban. The project will destroy the ingredients of the soil that support the lives of millions of inhabitants of a large region, increase the proportion of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in the air and seriously harm the flora and fauna of Sundarban. Moreover, it is important to remember that Sundarban serve as a natural barrier to the protection of the people in a large area of the coastal region from calamities such as cyclones Sidr and Aila. Given these circumstances, the court issued the March 1 order after hearing a public-interest litigation writ petition filed by the Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh seeking cancellation of the installation of the power plant.

The government is yet to provide any serious argument that disputes the claims of environmentalists nor has there been any feasibility study on the likely impact on the Sundarban following the establishment of the plants, as far as media reports go. Under these circumstances, the government stands to risk threatening a great national asset, ironically vying to become one of the seven natural wonders on earth, if it goes ahead with the signing and subsequently the establishment of the plants. It would be well-advised at least wait out the hearing on the court rule before proceeding with such a major project.

Licence To Kill

At a minimum, let us be honest with ourselves and acknowledge where the real blame lies. This ultimately lies with the corrupt system in place and the government that props it up. Government agencies have given the drivers literally a licence to kill. If we can agree on this, then we can take the right steps towards solving the problem.  Ikhtiar Kazi.

AS I read articles on Tareque Masud’s untimely death at the age of 54, I am saddened and outraged. I am saddened because his death caused by a head-on collision with a bus was completely preventable. I am outraged for the same reason. Many expressing their condolences about this tragic event knew the acclaimed movie director on a personal level, I cannot claim that privilege. Like many of you, I knew him only through his poignant movies, such as Matir Moina (The Clay Bird), winner of the 2002 Cannes Film Festival’s International Critics’ Prize, Muktir Gaan (The Songs of Freedom) and Ontarjatra (The Homeland).

Masud’s death will temporarily focus attention on fatal car accidents that increasingly appear to be expected daily news in Bangladesh. His death will spark protests, and call for action and change. ‘Visionary’ political leaders will express condolences and deliver grand speeches with oratory perfection. Leaders of political parties will blame each other as usual, but will take no responsibility or provide any lasting solutions.

Talk-shows will superficially address the breakdown of order and decency in the country. There will be marches and candle light vigils. The bus driver who may or may not have caused the accident will be made the scapegoat, found guilty and perhaps even be sentenced to death. Grandiose illusions of justice, democracy, and law of land prevailing is what you will hear. Bangladesh’s great democracy with its digital aspirations will march ahead, falsely appearing to tackle the incident as head-on as the accident itself.

That is the script. No real solutions addressing the root problem of such deadly accidents will be offered. No real or thorough investigation will be performed. You will see just the typical lustre of surface wax. And as expected, this process will repeat like reruns of your favourite TV shows, until another such avoidable accident happens—repeat, pause, repeat is the formula of choice for those who are inept of any vision.

Many people will place the ultimate blame on the reckless drivers that routinely drive in the wrong lanes at twice the legal speed limit. These drivers are sometimes high on drugs, overworked and have no real expertise and training to ride a bicycle, let alone a bus or a truck. Admittedly, they have blood on their hands when accidents occur, and they must bear their share of the blame. But if the drivers are made scapegoats, we have misdiagnosed the real problem, and such a solution will only trivially attempt to resolve a deeper known issue.
At a minimum, let us be honest with ourselves and acknowledge where the real blame lies. This ultimately lies with the corrupt system in place and the government that props it up. Government agencies have given the drivers literally a licence to kill. If we can agree on this, then we can take the right steps towards solving the problem.

Anyone who has spent even a short time in Bangladesh can figure out how the system for obtaining a driver’s licence works. An authentic licence with all its privileges (but not the responsibility) can be obtained for about Tk 10,000 ($150). Pay the fee, and you will have the legal right to drive on the streets of Bangladesh. No need to take the driving exam or prove you can actually drive. It is all covered in the fee. Efficient, automatic and even transparent so you do not have to waste your precious time stuck in bureaucratic lines or street traffic. An agent does all your work.

Allow me to shed some further light on the process. There are generally four variants to obtaining a licence. The ‘fully automatic’ process is described above (sit back and everything is taken care of). The ‘semi-automatic’ process is similar to ‘fully automatic’ but with one difference. In the ‘semi-automatic’ process, you have to actually sit for the exam. But don’t worry, there will be someone to assist you to make sure you pass the exam and to compensate you for your headache of appearing for the exam your fee will be a little less. 

The third category is what I call ‘Photoshop.’ You will receive a licence that looks authentic but your information will not be officially registered with any government agency. If you are caught with this licence, you are charged with fraud (but don’t worry, for the right fee even this can be waived).

Interestingly, for all practical purpose the three categories above are the same. The applicant’s economic ability determines the category chosen; market efficiency at its best. The less work you do and the more you outsource, the more expensive it is. It’s a well-oiled and well-designed system that takes into account your financial ability.

The fourth category is what I call ‘almost legitimate’ because you have to sit for the exam and actually take a real driving test. However, these tests are so rigorous that I doubt even a professional race-car driver would pass. From what I hear, one part of the test includes driving in reverse where you have to create the shape of the number ‘8.’ Like the previous three categories, there is also a guarantee. No matter what you do, you are guaranteed to fail the test for the temerity of making the government official actually do his job. The system will frustrate you until you follow the official unofficial process of paying a bribe.

If justice is to be served for Masud’s death as well as those of countless others, accountability must first be imposed on those at the top of the pyramid instead of those at the bottom, who are just pawns of the system. In Japan (and other advanced Asian countries) if a government agency or private institution is found remotely responsible for wrongdoing the head of the agency appears publicly, gets on his or her knees, weeps and profusely asks for forgiveness for their mistakes. Honour, dignity and harmony matters in these cultures (and maybe that is the reason they are ‘advanced’ nations). Even when there is a natural disaster (such as the recent tsunami), where things are not in the hands of man, leaders can be held responsible if they do not react to the situation properly. After the customary public humiliation and acknowledgement of responsibility, the leader is sacked and punished. Bangladesh (and Bangladeshi politicians) should take some lessons of humility from the most advanced Asian countries and emulate them. Of course, that is just one step in the process.

I realise that Bangladesh faces myriad problems and is still an underdeveloped country with minimal resources. However, how a nation tackles these challenges will determine its future. Let us ask the tough questions and get to the bottom of why man made tragedies such as the accident that killed Masud are daily occurrences. Let us develop a strategy to make sure it does not happen again. And let us hold all those who are responsible, directly or indirectly to the crimes they have committed, so that justice truly prevails. Masud’s death should not be in vain. If his death can make even a small dent in the direction of positive change, at least then we will have some solace. Masud and his crew were headed to Manikganj to receive permission to shoot his film ‘Kagojer Phool’ (Paper Flower) on that fateful day. We will only wonder what other works he would have produced if his life had not been tragically cut short.


I INTERVIEWED and hired several car drivers in my extended visit to Bangladesh. Part of my interview process would be to take their licence and ask them their name and date of birth. They would look dumbfounded because in most cases they did not know the name or date of birth that was on their licence. But they would stress that it is a legal and authentic licence. Ironically, it was just a year ago I wrote an article where I talked about head-on car collisions (you can find that article as well as other pieces on my blog). In addition, I have had the great privilege of travelling across Bangladesh and see its natural beauty. In all my trips, my biggest fear was accidents. Large buses and trucks routinely came head to head with my car because they were driving in the wrong lane. It did not matter if it was night or day, sunny or rainy. A split second was all it took to determine my fate, and luckily, fortune was smiling on me.

The Hazare Phenomenon

Is there a lesson for Bangladesh?

A heretofore little known man from Maharashtra is making the headlines in India. Anna Hazare has gone on fast to force the Indian government to formulate a more stringent anti-graft law because he feels that the one the government wants to put up in the parliament is not tough enough. And he has given ultimatum to the government to accept his version of the bill or leave.

Hazare's strength stems from the well of popular support that he has been able to garner over time for a cause that affects a very large segment of India's population. 

We are certain that Hazare's position against graft touches a common chord with most of the public in Bangladesh. Although one may not agree with the stiff position he is displaying in spite of his willingness to talk to the Indian government, it is the moral content of his action that one cannot but commend. 

Here is person who is trying to address a social ill that pervades the Indian society in a cancerous form and the only way to attract the attention of a seemingly unresponsive government is to express moral revulsion in a collective manner which he has done quite successfully.

For Bangladesh too we feel there is a need for similar manifestation of popular revulsion against corruption, on which the government has at best been soft-pedaling. And it is through movements such as Hazare's, peaceful yet demonstrative of the popular sentiment that will not only generate public debate but also induce the government to move decisively against all forms pervasive ills in the society.

We would hope that the civil society in Bangladesh will come out in support of anyone who takes the lead in this regard, as indeed one person has to stop indiscriminate issue of driving license.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Current State Of The Foreign Ministry

PROFESSIONALISM has no match in formulation and implementation of a country’s foreign policy. The slightest mistake in formulating and conducting foreign policy can make the country vulnerable to attack by foreign powers. Therefore, it should be formulated keeping in mind a country’s interests while avoiding any attitude that might be construed as a hostile or unfriendly act of the government. Foreign service officers and political entities who head the foreign ministry should be well-acquainted with the nitty-gritty of the foreign policy.

Recently, the foreign ministry saw an influx of people from other areas who do not seem to be acquainted with the ins and outs of the country’s foreign policy. Half a dozen ambassadors come from a different sector, some of them placed in important countries, including Russia and Britain. Germany, an important donor country and second highest export destination of Bangladeshi products, remains without an ambassador for quite some time. I recall the generous contribution of the German government and NGOs when severe floods affected Bangladesh in 1998.

At that time I was in charge of the Bangladesh embassy in Bonn as the ambassador was on leave. The permanent representative to the United Nations is also represented by a non-diplomat — an American citizen of Bangladesh origin. His recent meeting with the exiled Tibetan Dalai Lama raised eyebrows in the political circles in Beijing. If no appropriate explanation is given to the Chinese authorities, the relations between Bangladesh and China will grow cold. Bangladesh needs China much more than China needs Bangladesh. Our country should maintain balanced relationships with the two Asian giants, China and India, in the interests of the country.

Sex scandals involving diplomats at the ambassador level has seriously damaged the image of the foreign ministry. In June this year, the Bangladesh ambassador to Japan, AKM Mujibur Rahman, was called back to Dhaka on such a charge. Japan has been playing a very important role in developing the infrastructure of Bangladesh since pre-liberation days of the country, apart from turning out to be our largest donor country. In the recent past, another diplomat, Hasib Aziz, was called back to the foreign affairs ministry for taking an Uzbek woman as a second wife without seeking permission from the government. He later married two others.

The latest incident involving someone with a non-diplomatic background was that of the ambassador to Nepal, Neem Chandra Bhowmik, which turned out to be a very serious matter. Apart from the scandal, the former applied physics teacher of Dhaka University was accused of meddling in the internal affairs of Nepal. There has been allegation of corruption against him while offering scholarships to Nepalese students selected by the Bangladesh government. As reported, he lacks mannerism and diplomatic etiquette in dealing with foreign government.

There has been serious allegation against the Bangladesh ambassador, as reported in the news media, that he gave ride to retired Indian general Jacob to different meeting places in his official car flying the Indian flag. It is an unbelievably disgraceful affair. No action has yet been taken despite requests from the Nepalese government for calling him back. Needless to say that Nepal is a very important country in the region for Bangladesh. Also, allegation of corruption against the Bangladesh high commission in Britain needs to be looked into by the foreign ministry.

Both the prime minister and the foreign minister have toured many parts of the world by now, the achievements to which are not much visible. After Bangladesh has allowed transit facilities to India from Akhaura to Tripura, India will succeed in establishing link with its seven landlocked sister states through Bangladesh territory, apart from using Bangladesh sea ports. It may be recalled here that following our independence, the Chittagong Port was under a mine cleaning operation by Russian naval units, due to which Bangladesh had placed a request to use the Calcutta Port for transhipment for the time being. The request was denied by the Indian government at a time when friendship between the two countries was at its highest peak as India had assisted our freedom fighters to liberate the country from Pakistan’s subjugation.

Speaking recently at Bangladesh strategic study institute, the visiting Indian foreign minister reportedly said that Bangladesh would enjoy trade relations with the Indian landlocked states. The possibility of such scenario is bleak as these areas are low income. The entire north-eastern part of India is infested with insurgency. For all practical purposes, the government of India has no hold on Nagaland. Arunachal Pradesh has become controversial since China claimed 16 districts of the state.

Apart from this, the Indian authorities are in the process of demarcating the border by constructing barbed wire fences along Bangladesh borders without consulting the Bangladesh authorities, which should be considered an unfriendly act. Killing of Bangladeshi nationals by India’s Border Security Force is increasing without any serious protest from the Bangladesh side. Without resolving water sharing issues, India is reportedly ready to construct Tipaimukh dam, in spite of protests from the local people. Although the government of India verbally assured that no damage would be done to Bangladesh if it is constructed, experts are of the opinion that there would be tremendous adverse effect on Bangladesh, it being the lower riparian country. In a way, much more harm would be inflicted on Bangladesh than was by the Farakka barrage. Since China is going ahead with a project to divert waters from the River Brahmaputra in Tibet to arid Xinxiang region, apart from building hydroelectric power plant, India is taking initiative to make a dam to preserve waters from Brahmaputra, causing damage to Bangladesh. Brahmaputra is an international river and the interest of lower riparian should be looked into.

The non-recognition of Kosovo by the Bangladesh government may have irritated the United States which took the initiative to recognise Kosovo. There are similarities between the birth of Bangladesh and that of Kosovo from the subjugation of Serbia. It is understood that the Russian influence has deterred the recognition of Kosovo by Bangladesh. Possibly, the issue is linked with the construction of the atomic energy plant by Russia at Rooppur in Pabna. The treaty between Bangladesh and Russia is likely to be signed when the prime minister pays a visit to Russia this year. This would be her second visit to Russia.

The ministry of foreign affairs suffers from a shortage of manpower to run it effectively. With the departure of the ambassadors to China and France, there will be a vacuum in the ministry in respect of foreign language oriented diplomat. The post of additional foreign secretary remains vacant till writing of this article. The director general is looking after the territorial desk. No director general, however efficient, can handle the territorial desk without gaining a clear perception thorough training abroad. Each territorial desk is different from the point of view of geography, history and current affairs from other desks. From the desk officer to the director-general level, the ministry needs specialisation in the area to make judgment on significant issues which might affect the national interest of the country. Research work on important developments around Bangladesh and international platform is very important in formulating foreign policy. The ministry lacks a full-fledged research wing. It may consider introducing a course for non-diplomatic ambassadors before posting them abroad.

A state can be governed by a person uninitiated in politics, but foreign ministry could not be run by non-professional diplomats. The government should pay much more attention to the ministry of foreign affairs as it stands as the first line of defence for the country.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Maritime Border: Where Do We Stand Now?

BANGLADESH on February 26submitted its claim to the United Nations over its extension of continental shelf in the Bay of Bengal according to Clause 76 (8) of the United Nations Conferences on the Law of the Seas 1982, known as UNCLOS III. Bangladesh and its neighbouring countries, India and Myanmar, have ratified this convention. Myanmar submitted its claim on the Bay of Bengal on December 5, 2008, India on May 11, 2009. Before Bangladesh put its claims, it floated tenders to explore some deep-sea blocks in its continental shelf in April 2008. India and Myanmar put objections to those tenders claiming the areas are owned by them. Bangladesh took this matter to UN in November 2009 to settle the disputes over the ownership as per UNCLOS III.

The Law of the Sea
THE present day Law of the Sea is the outcome of United Nations conferences on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS I of 1958, UNCLOS II of 1960 and UNCLOS III of 1982. According to Articles 3 and 15 of UNCLOS III, every state has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles, measured from baselines in the line of low water tide along the seashore of a state. As per Article 17, ships of all states, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea. Article 33 gives authority of a state on certain other matters to further 12 nautical miles called as contiguous zone. Article 55 allows an exclusive economic zone, an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea, where the coastal state has sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources. As per Article 57, this economic zone shall not extend beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines. The UNCLOS III of 1982 in its Article 76 gives rights to the coastal states to own some more areas beyond the economic zone called the continental shelf.

Continental shelf
AS PER Article 76 sub-article 1, the continental shelf of a coastal state comprises the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin. As per sub-article 3, the continental margin comprises the submerged prolongation of the land mass of the coastal state, and consists of the seabed and subsoil of the shelf, the slope and the rise. As the limits of sea boundary prolongs towards the deep sea, disputes should arise between adjacent states on their boundaries and claims over their natural resources. To resolve the disputes sub-article 4(a) of Article 76 gives clarifications that the coastal state shall establish the outer edge of the continental margin beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines by either, i) a line delineated where the thickness of sedimentary rocks is at least one per cent of the shortest distance from the foot of the continental slope; or ii) line delineated in accordance to fixed points not more than 60 nautical miles from the foot of the continental slope. Article 76 limits the continental shelf on the seabed, drawn in accordance with paragraph 4 (a) (i) and (ii), not beyond 350 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured, or not beyond 100 nautical miles from the 2,500-metre isobath, which is a line connecting the depth of 2,500 metres.

Disputes with India and Myanmar
BANGLADESH in 1989 divided its mainland and territorial waters into 23 blocks for gas and oil exploration. In 2008, eight blocks under exclusive economic zone and 20 blocks under continental shelf were tendered inviting interested parties for exploration. But objections were raised from India and Myanmar over claims on those deep-sea blocks. A recent discovery of huge hydrocarbon reserve in the continental shelves of India in Orissa, and Myanmar in Rakhaine states triggered these disputes with Bangladeshi claims. Bangladesh needs to solve this problem as per Articles 59 and 76 of UNCLOS III.

Article 59 of UNCLOS III says, in cases where the convention does not attribute rights or jurisdiction to the coastal state or to other states within the exclusive economic zone, and a conflict arises between the interests of the coastal state and any other state or states, the conflict should be resolved on the basis of equity and in the light of all the relevant circumstances, taking into account the respective importance of the interests involved to the parties as well as to the international community as a whole. As per this article, Bangladesh’s claim of equity should be based on all relevant circumstances, particularly the basis of sedimentary rocks deposited from its mainland.

Bangladesh with its Territorial Waters and Maritime Zones Act of 1974 was rather unaware of its rights in the deep sea. Following the equidistant formula for setting limits of the territorial sea between adjacent states, Bangladesh extended its boundary limits in 1989 by straight lines and remained content with its exclusive economic zone. In 2006, when India floated tender for offshore exploration in the Bay of Bengal, the Bangladesh government only got concerned, as the media reported that India has encroached into its EEZ block number 21 (see

India signed a production sharing contract with Australian company Santos on March 2, 2007 for oil exploration in the block NEC-DWN-2004/2. The Myanmar government awarded the offshore blocks AD-8 to China National Petroleum Corporation of China and AD-9 to Oil and Natural Gas Corporation of India, in addition to block AD7 to Daewoo of Korea.

As India and Myanmar started their aggression into Bangladesh waters, the Bangladesh government also started preparing for third round bidding for oil and gas exploration in the deep sea with a fresh production sharing contract. By April 2008, Bangladesh delineated its outer boundary of the continental shelf and floated tender for exploration on eight shallow water and 20 deep sea blocks. India and Myanmar quickly opposed this move claiming Bangladeshi tenders were on their blocks. But Bangladesh navy was active to put pressure on Santos not to encroach into Bangladesh waters. The navy was also deployed, in a similar move, to thwart attempt by Daewoo rigs to explore in the AD7 block of Myanmar (The Daily Star, November 14, 2008).

This area would fall under the Bangladesh deep sea block No DS-08-13 about 60 kilometres off St Martin’s Island.

The Bangladesh government took a commendable step in November 2009 by approaching to the UN to resolve its sea boundary dispute with neighbours as per its convention. Another commendable step was taken in February this year, when it put forward its claim of sea boundary to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, known as CLCS. Though this claim was not made public, it is known that the claims were made in accordance with the Article 76 and its Clauses 1, 2, 3, 4 (a) and (b), 5, 6 and 7. Clauses 4 and 6 of Article 76 set out specific formula to establish outer edges of the continental shelf of a country. The claim submitted has an executive summary and an outline map which has references fixed points defined by coordinates, and straight lines joining them not exceeding 60 nautical miles in length. These are required as per the Clause 7 of Article 76. Bangladesh claim is also supported by technical and scientific data prepared with the support of the navy, Geological Survey of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Oil, Gas and Mineral Corporation, Bangladesh Petroleum Exploration and Production Company, Space Research and Remote Sensing Organisation and Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority.

The offshore blocks NEC-DWN-2004/1 and NEC-DWN-2004/2 and part of D31 of India, and blocks AD7, AD8, AD9, AD10, AD11, AD12, AD13 and AD14 of Myanmar fall under the waters of Bangladesh as per UN Convention, is illustrated in the map.  Bangladesh has taken a rightful step for winning its sea boundary by diplomacy rather than war. In the name of equity, India and Myanmar are now trying to pursue Bangladesh for a negotiated settlement. But the matter is now under the disposal of the UN Commission, where it is to be settled according to the convention set by the international community. Any attempt of bypassing the convention would be a matter of objection from it. Against this backdrop, our present stand in claiming our sea boundary appears to be just and very strong. We should not make any delay now in updating our Territorial Waters and Maritime Zones Act of 1974 according to the UNCLOS III of 1982.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

BCL Finds new targets

ATTACK on, and assault of, teachers at public universities and colleges seems to have become the favourite pastime for the Bangladesh Chhatra League, the ruling Awami League’s associate body of students, in recent days. According to a report front-paged in New Age on Wednesday, activists of the Chhatra League confined the proctor and a hall provost at Rajshahi University, assaulted a hall provost at Chittagong University and locked up the academic building at the Noakhali University of Science and Technology on Tuesday. Just over a week back, on August 8, Chhatra League activists swooped on teachers at the Bangladesh Agricultural University, leaving at least 20 of them injured. Little wonder then that, according to another report also front-paged in New Age on Wednesday, teachers of some public universities and university colleges feel insecure as some BCL leaders and activists have become increasingly ‘violent’ in recent times. With the admission season just round the corner, these teachers have all the more reasons to feel vulnerable; after all, BCL leaders and activists have shown since the AL-Jatiya Party government assumed office in January 2009 that they are not used to being told ‘no’ when it comes to admission and recruitment of candidates of their choice to public educational institutions and government offices respectively.

The public universities and the University Grants Commission are ‘concerned’ about an increased number of attacks by Chhatra League leaders and activists on teachers, so was the UGC chair, AK Azad Chowdhury, quoted in the New Age report as saying. The current president of the Dhaka University Teachers’ Association and a former general secretary of the association also condemned the assault of teachers, not in one voice though. The DUTA president questioned the role of some teachers during the skirmishes at the agricultural university. On the other hand, the pro-vice-chancellor of the National University went to the extent of defending the BCL elements, saying ‘there is no reason to think that teachers are always innocent.’ So, a united front among teachers, at least in the articulation of concern over, and protest against, BCL atrocities against their colleagues across the country looks improbable.

Even if the teachers’ community protested against the attack on and assault of some of their colleagues, it was unlikely to have any effect whatsoever. When tough talks against BCL violence and vandalism by key functionaries of the government, including the prime minister herself, have thus far failed to make the BCL troublemakers behave, there is hardly any guarantee that mere protests by teachers, no matter how united they are, which they do not appear to be, would make any difference. Ultimately, it is the government, and also the ruling party, that needs to act decisively and demonstratively. Regrettably, however, neither the government nor the ruling party has thus far displayed hardly any sincerity to follow up the warnings by their top leaders with commensurate actions. There have been some expulsions from the Chhatra League on disciplinary grounds and even a couple of arrests but these actions proved neither sustained nor deterrent enough.

As we have commented in these columns again and again, unbridled atrocities by BCL troublemakers across the country ultimately undermine the credibility and authority of the government and the ruling party, which may already be in a precarious position. Hence, they need to act now, and act decisively and demonstratively.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Bangladesh’s Political Insanity?

IN RECENT days, the Economist of the UK seems to have taken more than a casual interest about the sad state of politics inside Bangladesh, which has been a nasty partisan one with an illiberal democracy for the past two decades. While such an interest may be a boon to stir a healthy debate about the health of a failing democracy, I was not happy with the partisan tone of the analyst who wrote on August 13 under the pseudonym Banyan. It is absurd to take such pieces seriously when we even don’t know who has written the piece.

The politics in Bangladesh has been abused by those in power with a winner-takes-all attitude. This trend was neither started by the ruling Awami League when in 2008 it swept to power in a landslide, nor will it probably end with its fall. The ruling party never learns how to compromise and build consensus across the aisle on the parliament floor. It carries out partisan policies and takes draconian measures, all aimed at marginalising its opposition, hoping that such would ensure its victory in the next election, only to find that they are rejected by its electorate. This is the most important lesson which the leaders of the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, often accused of entertaining dynastic ideas, have foolishly tried to be oblivious of. There is a name for such an attitude. I call it insanity!

True to Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s remark more than half a century ago that ‘What Bengal (comprising of today’s Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal in India) thinks today, India thinks tomorrow,’ the Bangladeshi people are probably the most politically conscious of all the people living in South Asia. They have never made a mistake when they went to the polls to disrobe a political party while replacing it by another. They were not wrong when they voted for the Jukto Front in 1954 and the Awami League in 1970 as part of what was once East Pakistan. Minus the military period of 1975-91, nor were they wrong in any election held ever since December 16 of 1971, when Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation. They were not wrong when in 1946 they overwhelmingly voted for Pakistan in what was then British India. There were not wrong either in December of 2008 when they voted for the coalition led by Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League.

Unfortunately, this piece of essential history, that has defined much of the Bangladeshi character, its sense of intellectual superiority and political correctness, is often forgotten by the new leaders that came to power since 1975.

If today’s leaders of major political parties had respected their electorate and learned that bitter lesson that Bangladeshi people don’t like the aspiring pharaohs, nawabs and princes, the arrogant snobs and the extremist zealots, the thugs and robbers that spoil and rob their wealth, we would have been spared of this insanity and it could have been a big plus for the failing health of democracy in Bangladesh. If they had learned that ‘the politics of Bengal is in reality the economics of Bengal’, they probably would have cared more for improving the economy rather than coming up with chauvinistic political agendas and narratives that have brought nothing good but harmed the economy of the country through mindless strikes and counter-strikes.

And probably, there has never been a better time in the last two decades to changing this paradigm than after the election of December 2008, dubbed by most outside experts as the fairest poll in the country’s four-decade history. There was that wave of national optimism that the newly sworn prime minister would use her party’s popularity to strengthen democratic institutions and pursue national reconciliation, putting an end to a vicious cycle of nasty politics between the Awami League and its major rival, the BNP. But that hope seems to be scuttled by allegations that she had used the huge mandate for partisan advantage. Her opponents say that she has been more interested in sanctifying her late father’s (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding president of Bangladesh) image and solidifying her party’s position than real changes that are necessary to either change Bangladesh from an illiberal democracy to a liberal democracy or improve her economy from its 7 per cent GDP growth rate to a healthier double-digit one.

There is no denying that power is abused in every illiberal democracy, let alone autocratic, anti-people regimes of our planet. It is this abuse at the top which leads to unfathomable corruption and crime spreading like a virus in every public sector. And, in this regard, Bangladesh has plenty of examples with filthy rich politicians, their beneficiaries and benefactors. She has her share of ‘untouchable’ ‘princes’, a few ‘disposable’ godfathers, and many sycophants. Thus, when the erstwhile military-controlled caretaker government came to power in 2007, putting some of these thugs behind the prison cells, people started celebrating and dreaming once again (much like the independence day celebration of 1971) that their days of sad past living under the thugs and criminals were over. It only took a few months to have the rude awakening that ‘whoever goes to Lanka becomes a Ravana.’ The caretaker government was no saint!

Bangladesh’s history is, therefore, a sad tragicomedy played by political actors who come and go through the swinging door of politics, never to learn from its bloody past that has witnessed so many assassinations. As my sagacious father would say it would require seven layers of soil to be exchanged before anything good to come out of this unfortunate land! A sad commentary, and yet, probably a correct one, for an unfortunate people!

Politics and, more correctly, the political leaders have betrayed the Bangladeshi people too long by choking their legitimate aspirations to live in a crimeless and corruption-less society. They forget about accountability for their misdeeds, which is a cornerstone of democracy. Thus, when swept out of power, they cry foul with new government inquiries and ensuing legal actions, which may put them behind the prison walls. When in power, they seem to fancy that this day of hardship would never visit them. What a selective amnesia!

No one should ever think that they are above the law. I have no sympathy for criminals and corrupt guys. The government owes its people the simple task of ensuring checks and balances by prosecuting them in a free trial. The process ought to be fair and transparent and cannot be seen partisan-like where the ruling party’s thugs dodge the long arms of the law and justice while their counterparts in the opposition are prosecuted. The opposition leaders simply cannot cry foul when their kith and kin and buddies are charged for money-laundering and other crimes.

The Economist writer Banyan’s claims about the reasons behind the troubles with Dr Yunus are too childish to be taken seriously. Sheikh Mujib was a towering figure in the politics of Bangladesh, and as shown in the 2004 poll (when the BNP was in power), conducted on the worldwide listeners of BBC’s Bengali radio service, was voted the ‘Greatest Bengali of All Time’ beating Rabindranath Tagore, another Nobel laureate, and others. It is doubtful that Dr Yunus or anyone in our time would be able to eclipse that image of Sheikh Mujib.

Banyan is seemingly against the current war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh and finds witch-hunting in the government’s efforts to try the alleged criminals. He forgets that the ruling party had a mandate to close this sad chapter of Bangladesh by trying those accused of committing one of the worst crimes of our time, which has killed some three hundred thousand Bangladeshis. (Note: while no serious effort has been taken inside Bangladesh to count the number of those killed during the war of liberation, some recent research findings do suggest that the actual figure was well below three million—the commonly accepted figure in Bangladesh.) During that sad chapter the roles of some politicians now belonging to the opposition was anything but humanly. They were monsters, torturing and killing their fellow Bangladeshis like rats and mosquitoes. One cannot but wonder what message Khaleda Zia was delivering to our people when she allowed such murderers to join her party and become ministers!

Accusations have been made in the Economist that the war crimes tribunal proceedings in Bangladesh are not fair. I am not aware of any war crimes tribunal that has not been accused of being imperfect. Even the Nuremburg Trial has not been spared of such accusations and has been called ‘politically motivated’ since it was carried out by the opponents of the Nazis. As to the shoddy trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1962 in Israel, the least said the better. And yet, in spite of such accusations, no one would dispute that each of these trials was able to do justice.

I don’t see why today the Bangladesh government would fail to carry out its national obligation by trying the alleged war criminals fairly. As I wrote last year, such trials should never be abused for witch-hunting the opposition, and I am assured that the commission’s office is not abused. The defenders would have all means to defend themselves against the charges. As to the treatment of the accused, I am also told that they are treated humanly, and much better treated than what the US and the UK governments have done with their shoddy trials of suspected terrorists in the aftermath of 9/11. Let’s face it, compared to how those suspects like KSM and others in Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan are treated, the suspected war criminals in Bangladesh are getting a five-star celebrity treatment!

What Banyan forgets is that our world needs more, and not less, of war crimes tribunals so that no one, not even Bush and Blair, Rumsfeld and Cheney, can dodge their accountability for crimes against humanity. [It is good to hear the recent courageous verdict by Judge Hamilton of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit who refused to grant former Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and others immunity from lawsuits which ‘would amount to an extraordinary abdication of our (US) government’s checks and balances that preserve Americans’ liberty.’ The case is important because it makes clear—for the first time—that government officials can be held accountable for the intentional mistreatment of American citizens, even if that conduct happens in a war zone. (Sadly, there remains no accountability for the abuse, and torture, of foreigners by American jailers and interrogators, which Rumsfeld and President George W Bush personally sanctioned.)]

Banyan tries to make fun of the use of ‘sir’ for the current prime minister. Is Banyan aware of the fact that many successful female CEOs don’t like the term ‘madam’ for them, and insist that they be addressed ‘sir’? Banyon may like to check out with PepsiCo’s CEO—Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi.

Banyan’s article has distorted some facts. No one has been prosecuted for criticising the amended constitution. Opposition leaders have simply been warned as they threatened to throw away the constitution and thus implicitly encourage unconstitutional means to take over power. Violence is not the way to solve anything, and surely not a constitutional problem. There is a place for such a debate. It is parliament. That is where the BNP and other opposition party members ought to debate.

As noted above, the article in the Economist does little good to steer a healthy debate about politics in Bangladesh and for curbing its nasty partisan politics.

Democracy is worthless without a viable opposition. The majority rule need not be a winner-takes-all process which marginalises opposition. The leaders in Bangladeshi politics ought to show more maturity and compromise. The two decades that they have ruled Bangladesh alternately as prime ministers should have been sufficient to move forward and grow up. A healthy, respectable dialogue between the political leaders with a firm commitment towards good governance, checks and balances, accountability and respect for the rule of law can be the starting point, if they truly care about building a viable, thriving, healthy democracy in Bangladesh. They can either embrace the lessons of history or choose to end in its dustbin. The choice is surely theirs to get out of political insanity.

Friday, August 12, 2011

New Restrictive Measures On Media Soon

The government is now working on a new stringent ‘Private Broadcasting Policy 2011’ to be announced soon in an apparent move to control any dissenting voice.

Expression of views in the media is therefore coming under increasing government scrutiny making it more difficult for the media practitioners to ensure freedom of expression complying with the government regulations. Once the new restrictive policy comes in force, it will adversely affect press freedom.

Meanwhile, as a part of this restrictive policy, two politicians and a programme moderator of Ekushey TV has already been summoned to a High Court bench last week to explain their remarks on the judges in a case relating to Islami Oikya Jote leader Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini. They have been asked to appear before the court on August 18 to explain. The politicians include BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia’s advisor Ahmed Azam Khan and a central leader of Bangladesh Samajtantrik Dal (BSD) Raziquzzaman Ratan and the moderator of the talk show Anjan Roy.

The suo-moto rule was issued by the High Court bench of justices A H M Shamsuddin Chowdhury and Gobinda Chandra Tagore on the three in this regard. Deputy attorney general A B M Altaf Hossain brought the issue before the notice of the court.

It is also happening at a time when the editor of weekly Shirshaw News is already under police custody on charges allegedly for money extortion. Earlier, the Amar Desh Editor Mahmudur Rahman was put in jail for almost one year in a contempt case. A senior reporter of the daily was sent to jail for one month despite his pleading guilty to avert the sentence.

While airing public opinion, media outlets like TV channels, radio and newspapers have to take extra care now whether their views are likely to cause any unwilling slander to the government or the judiciary.

“We are at a fix,” said a news editor of a popular channel expressing the volume of pressure in running the daily news programme.

It may be recalled that the two politicians reportedly said, “The judges wrote an essay on cow while writing on river,” Altaf Hossain told reporters later on. The talk show participants apparently made the reference as the judges brought BNP chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia in their comments in a judgement on a case relating to a charge of contempt on the constitution made by Amini.

The court has also directed the ETV authorities to submit a compact disc (CD) of the programme before it on Aug 12.

Police earlier arrested Akramul Haque, editor of the weekly ‘Shirshaw News’ on charges of three money extortion cases. The fact was that he printed some reports on irregularities of a state minister responsible for the ministry of forest and environment.

The government action initially came on Haque in the form of cancellation of 10 accreditation cards of the newsmen working for his weekly and its online version. As they were agitating for restoration of the accreditation cards, three cases were suddenly lodged against him, one by a secretariat employee, another by a businessman having false address at Kolabagan and the third one at Ashulia thana in the outskirt of the city.

The secretariat employee, affiliated to the ruling party,lodged the case at least one week after the cancellation of the accreditation card and Haque wondered how he could demand money inside the secretariat when his permission to enter into the building complex was snatched earlier.

The veracity of the Kolabagan businessman also could not be ascertained as the presence of the complaint could not be identified in the given address. The third case at Ashulia was reportedly lodged in the same day as the one lodged against him at Bangladesh secretariat address.

Haque’s family wondered how all such things could happen when the government’s anger on him directly resulted from some critical news reports published in his weekly in the recent past. Moreover the cancellation of the accreditation cards of 10 newsmen and his arrest have in fact knocked out the weekly and its online version from functioning sending about 40 newsmen out of job.

Meanwhile, the new Private Broadcasting Policy 2011, is lying with the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the ministry of Information for vetting, has formulated a comprehensive guideline on what private TV and radio stations can’t telecast in greater interest of state security.

It said they will be barred from airing programmes which could cause deterioration of relations with friendly nations. Under the new policy, once adopted, TV and radio stations will also be barred from telecasting footage that may show disrespect to the members of the armed forces, law enforcing agencies and public servants engaged in punishing criminals.

They can’t telecast programmes which may bring dishonour to father of the nation in one hand and heap praise and sympathy to ‘rogue elements’ and people having no moral character. Programmes distorting the country’s history also can’t be telecast.

Besides, “no programme on campaign on behalf of a country having conflicts with Bangladesh can be aired to result in influencing the issue. Again programme on a campaign against any friendly country can’t be telecast which may hamper the country’s relations with that country”.

Private satellite TV channels backed by the opposition parties will not be allowed to air programmes portraying India as not a friend of Bangladesh. They will not be able to release secret government documents or military documents, the disclosure of which may endanger the state’s security.

Among other things, it will also prohibit showing footage of rape, adultery, violence against women and children and scenes of violence, severe injury, blood stains, horrible pieces and other distasteful incidents. TV channels and radio stations will be asked to follow the new guidelines in addition to Censorship of Films Act 1963, the policy outlines said.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Govt lacks Moral Authority To Pursue Corruption Case Against Opposition

THE case filed by the Anti-Corruption Commission on Monday against the leader of the opposition in parliament, Khaleda Zia, on the charge of buying a piece of land for a charity named after her late husband with undisclosed money appears to be more an exercise in political arm-twisting than an effort to combat corruption establish the rule of law. According to a report front-paged in New Age on Tuesday, in the case—the first against the former prime minister since the Awami League-Jatiya Party government assumed office in January 2009—the commission has accused Khaleda Zia of criminal misconduct and abuse of power in respect of the purchase of a 42-katha land in the capital Dhaka in January 2005. If proved guilty, she may be sentenced to seven years in prison.

The case against Khaleda Zia is hardly surprising, though. The government may seek to brandish the case as a manifestation of its seriousness and sincerity towards realising its electoral pledge to establish the rule of law and to combat corruption; however, it would find it difficult to convince even its own people. After all, almost into its third year in office, the incumbents have thus far hardly set any such precedents. On the contrary, many of its actions tend to betray its disregard for the rule of law and suggest that it gives precedence to partisanship above all else. The review and withdrawal of the so-called politically motivated cases provides an obvious example, with the relevant governmental committee mostly reviewing and recommending withdrawal of cases filed against leaders and activists of the ruling alliance. Incidentally, a case filed against the prime minister on charges of irregularities in a charity named after her late father was also withdrawn. Meanwhile, most of the so-called politically motivated cases against opposition leaders and activists were kept in place.

Moreover, more and more opposition leaders and activists are implicated in more and more cases. Besides, the government has had individuals convicted of murder granted presidential clemency, apparently in consideration of their affiliation with the ruling Awami League.

In such circumstances, the corruption case filed against Khaleda Zia or, for that matter, the money laundering charges against Tarique Rahman is highly likely to be interpreted as an arm-twisting tactic employed by the government to make the opposition fall in line. Naturally, the opposition would be antagonised further and a peaceful resolution to the prevailing political standoff could become even more remote than it already is.

That is not to suggest, however, that the charges against Khaleda Zia should be dropped, to facilitate an end to the impasse. On the contrary, the opposition leader should face up to the charges brought against her in a competent court of law and secure acquittal, which would not only make her innocent in the eyes of not only the law but also the people. Meanwhile, if the government sincerely wants to prove its commitment to the rule of law and the fight against corruption, it should stop review and withdrawal of the so-called politically motivated case on the one hand and revive the cases already reviewed and withdrawn so that the leaders and activists of the ruling alliance could come out clean, in reality and in the perception of the people. Otherwise, it will have hardly any moral authority to even accuse, let alone try, Khaleda Zia of corruption.

BCL At It Again

IT APPEARS that the Bangladesh Chhatra League, an associate body of the ruling Awami League, is out there to destroy every semblance of propriety, rule of law and every social more. Judging by the audacity, ferocity and frequency of their lawless behaviour, it feels as if the student body is a blood-thirsty wild beast unleashed on the educational institutions of the country, by none other than the government itself. On Monday, the BCL unit of Bangladesh Agricultural University attacked and injured 20 teachers. According to a report published in New Age on Tuesday, the teachers were injured as a result of a series of incidents triggered by the misbehaviour of some BCL activists with the teachers. The teachers brought out a silent procession which came under BCL attack. The teachers then detained four of the attackers and handed them to the police. In retaliation, the teachers were once again attacked at the Teachers Student Centre where they received most of the injuries, some whom were later admitted to the Mymensingh Medical College. The BCL activists vandalised some buildings and set four vehicles on fire.
There are indeed signs, as the teachers association president is quoted in the report as saying, that if the action against the attackers is not taken immediately, the university might close down. That would mean that the number of educational institutions closed down as a result of BCL-instigated violence in the past two and a half years should now number in hundreds. Ever since the Awami League-led government came to power, hundreds of small and large campuses have witnessed dangerous levels of BCL-induced violence. BCL activists have fought opposition student bodies for control of campuses, locked in intra-party feud over tender grabbing, and attacked ordinary students, teachers, educational institution staff, government officials, law enforcement officials and ordinary people on the streets causing damage to vehicles, property, as well as death and injury.

Yet, in the intervening period since having come to power, the only step taken to reign them in, by the ruling party, seems to be the prime minister’s decision to stand down as the BCL chairperson, the seriousness of which can easily be doubted since she this year not only attended the BCL convention but, according to media reports, also reprimanded senior members of her cabinet for having failed to do so. As for law enforcement, it is true that the law enforcers arrest activists from time to time, especially when incidents get out of hand as it did in the agriculture university, but the offenders are soon either released on bail or acquitted. The fear is that even if the government takes some disciplinary action at the agriculture university, it is not likely to last long.

A burning, Captive London

The riots which have for the past few days wreaked havoc in London have sent shock waves through the United Kingdom and even beyond it. For a city which has been preparing assiduously for next year's Olympics, an event it means to showcase to people around the world, these troubles could not have come at a worse time. Sparked by the killing of a young man by police last week in the city's Tottenham area, the riots spilled over into wider areas over the weekend and effectively introduced a surreal atmosphere all around.

The images coming out of the rioting have been deeply disturbing. Gangs of young men have cheerfully gone around setting cars and buses and even rubbish bins alight before setting fire to shops and warehouses. The picture has been a common one in the east, north and south of London, with hooded youths caught on camera walking away with looted goods. A stretched police department together with a harried fire service have naturally not proved effective in containing the crisis. Prime Minister Cameron, Home Secretary Theresa May and London Mayor Boris Johnson have all cut their holidays short and returned home to deal with the situation.

The riots are perhaps a sign of the deep malaise which runs through British society in these difficult economic times, with jobs being lost and cuts being mulled in significant areas of the public sector. And yet what has been happening over the past few days is a clear picture of unalloyed lawlessness that cannot be excused. That is the message the authorities have been giving out. It must now be followed by sharp, effective action. Unless the rioters are roped in by the law, London will remain in a state of vulnerability. It will be an image that cannot sit well with the heritage of this historically famous city.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Secret War In 120 Countries

SOMEWHERE on this planet an American commando is carrying out a mission. Now, say that 70 times and you’re done... for the day. Without the knowledge of the American public, a secret force within the US military is undertaking operations in a majority of the world’s countries. This new Pentagon power elite is waging a global war whose size and scope has never been revealed, until now.

After a US Navy SEAL put a bullet in Osama bin Laden’s chest and another in his head, one of the most secretive black-ops units in the American military suddenly found its mission in the public spotlight. It was atypical. While it’s well known that US Special Operations forces are deployed in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it’s increasingly apparent that such units operate in murkier conflict zones like Yemen and Somalia, the full extent of their worldwide war has remained deeply in the shadows.

Last year, Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post reported that US Special Operations forces were deployed in 75 countries, up from 60 at the end of the Bush presidency. By the end of this year, US Special Operations Command spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told me, that number will likely reach 120. ‘We do a lot of travelling—a lot more than Afghanistan or Iraq,’ he said recently. This global presence—in about 60 per cent of the world’s nations and far larger than previously acknowledged—provides striking new evidence of a rising clandestine Pentagon power elite waging a secret war in all corners of the world.

The rise of the military’s secret military
BORN of a failed 1980 raid to rescue American hostages in Iran, in which eight US service members died, US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) was established in 1987. Having spent the post-Vietnam years distrusted and starved for money by the regular military, special operations forces suddenly had a single home, a stable budget, and a four-star commander as their advocate. Since then, SOCOM has grown into a combined force of startling proportions. Made up of units from all the service branches, including the army’s ‘Green Berets’ and Rangers, Navy SEALs, Air Force Air Commandos, and Marine Corps Special Operations teams, in addition to specialised helicopter crews, boat teams, civil affairs personnel, para-rescuemen, and even battlefield air-traffic controllers and special operations weathermen, SOCOM carries out the United States’ most specialised and secret missions. These include assassinations, counterterrorist raids, long-range reconnaissance, intelligence analysis, foreign troop training, and weapons of mass destruction counter-proliferation operations.

One of its key components is the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, a clandestine sub-command whose primary mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists. Reporting to the president and acting under his authority, JSOC maintains a global hit list that includes American citizens. It has been operating an extra-legal ‘kill/capture’ campaign that John Nagl, a past counterinsurgency adviser to four-star general and soon-to-be CIA Director David Petraeus, calls ‘an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine.’
This assassination programme has been carried out by commando units like the Navy SEALs and the army’s Delta Force as well as via drone strikes as part of covert wars in which the CIA is also involved in countries like Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen. In addition, the command operates a network of secret prisons, perhaps as many as 20 black sites in Afghanistan alone, used for interrogating high-value targets.

Growth industry
FROM a force of about 37,000 in the early 1990s, Special Operations Command personnel have grown to almost 60,000, about a third of whom are career members of SOCOM; the rest have other military occupational specialties, but periodically cycle through the command. Growth has been exponential since September 11, 2001, as SOCOM’s baseline budget almost tripled from $2.3 billion to $6.3 billion. If you add in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has actually more than quadrupled to $9.8 billion in these years. Not surprisingly, the number of its personnel deployed abroad has also jumped four-fold. Further increases, and expanded operations, are on the horizon.

Lieutenant General Dennis Hejlik, the former head of the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command—the last of the service branches to be incorporated into SOCOM in 2006—indicated, for instance, that he foresees a doubling of his former unit of 2,600. ‘I see them as a force someday of about 5,000, like equivalent to the number of SEALs that we have on the battlefield. Between [5,000] and 6,000,’ he said at a June breakfast with defence reporters in Washington. Long-term plans already call for the force to increase by 1,000.
During his recent Senate confirmation hearings, Navy Vice Admiral William McRaven, the incoming SOCOM chief and outgoing head of JSOC (which he commanded during the bin Laden raid), endorsed a steady manpower growth rate of 3 to 5 per cent a year, while also making a pitch for even more resources, including additional drones and the construction of new special operations facilities.

A former SEAL who still sometimes accompanies troops into the field, McRaven expressed a belief that, as conventional forces are drawn down in Afghanistan, special ops troops will take on an ever greater role. Iraq, he added, would benefit if elite U.S forces continued to conduct missions there past the December 2011 deadline for a total American troop withdrawal. He also assured the Senate Armed Services Committee that ‘as a former JSOC commander, I can tell you we were looking very hard at Yemen and at Somalia.’
During a speech at the National Defence Industrial Association’s annual Special Operations and Low-intensity Conflict Symposium earlier this year, Navy Admiral Eric Olson, the outgoing chief of Special Operations Command, pointed to a composite satellite image of the world at night. Before September 11, 2001, the lit portions of the planet—mostly the industrialised nations of the global north—were considered the key areas. ‘But the world changed over the last decade,’ he said. ‘Our strategic focus has shifted largely to the south... certainly within the special operations community, as we deal with the emerging threats from the places where the lights aren’t.’

To that end, Olson launched ‘Project Lawrence’, an effort to increase cultural proficiencies—like advanced language training and better knowledge of local history and customs—for overseas operations. The programme is, of course, named after the British officer, Thomas Edward Lawrence (better known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’), who teamed up with Arab fighters to wage a guerrilla war in the Middle East during World War I. Mentioning Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, and Indonesia, Olson added that SOCOM now needed ‘Lawrences of Wherever.’

While Olson made reference to only 51 countries of top concern to SOCOM, Col. Nye told me that on any given day, Special Operations forces are deployed in approximately 70 nations around the world. All of them, he hastened to add, at the request of the host government. According to testimony by Olson before the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year, approximately 85 per cent of special operations troops deployed overseas are in 20 countries in the CENTCOM area of operations in the Greater Middle East: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Yemen. The others are scattered across the globe from South America to Southeast Asia, some in small numbers, others as larger contingents.

Special Operations Command won’t disclose exactly which countries its forces operate in. ‘We’re obviously going to have some places where it’s not advantageous for us to list where we’re at,’ says Nye. ‘Not all host nations want it known, for whatever reasons they have—it may be internal, it may be regional.’
But it’s no secret (or at least a poorly kept one) that so-called black special operations troops, like the SEALs and Delta Force, are conducting kill/capture missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen, while ‘white’ forces like the Green Berets and Rangers are training indigenous partners as part of a worldwide secret war against al-Qaeda and other militant groups. In the Philippines, for instance, the US spends $50 million a year on a 600-person contingent of Army Special Operations forces, Navy Seals, Air Force special operators, and others that carries out counterterrorist operations with Filipino allies against insurgent groups like Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf.

Last year, as an analysis of SOCOM documents, open-source Pentagon information, and a database of Special Operations missions compiled by investigative journalist Tara McKelvey (for the Medill School of Journalism’s National Security Journalism Initiative) reveals, America’s most elite troops carried out joint-training exercises in Belize, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Germany, Indonesia, Mali, Norway, Panama, and Poland. So far in 2011, similar training missions have been conducted in the Dominican Republic, Jordan, Romania, Senegal, South Korea, and Thailand, among other nations. In reality, Nye told me, training actually went on in almost every nation where Special Operations forces are deployed. ‘Of the 120 countries we visit by the end of the year, I would say the vast majority are training exercises in one fashion or another. They would be classified as training exercises.’

The Pentagon’s power elite
ONCE the neglected stepchildren of the military establishment, the Special Operations forces have been growing exponentially not just in size and budget, but also in power and influence. Since 2002, SOCOM has been authorized to create its own Joint Task Forces—like Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines—a prerogative normally limited to larger combatant commands like CENTCOM. This year, without much fanfare, SOCOM also established its own Joint Acquisition Task Force, a cadre of equipment designers and acquisition specialists.

With control over budgeting, training, and equipping its force, powers usually reserved for departments (like the Department of the Army or the Department of the Navy), dedicated dollars in every Defence Department budget, and influential advocates in Congress, SOCOM is by now an exceptionally powerful player at the Pentagon. With real clout, it can win bureaucratic battles, purchase cutting-edge technology, and pursue fringe research like electronically beaming messages into people’s heads or developing stealth-like cloaking technologies for ground troops. Since 2001, SOCOM’s prime contracts awarded to small businesses—those that generally produce specialty equipment and weapons—have jumped six-fold.

Headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, but operating out of theatre commands spread out around the globe, including Hawaii, Germany, and South Korea, and active in the majority of countries on the planet, Special Operations Command is now a force unto itself. As outgoing SOCOM chief Olson put it earlier this year, SOCOM ‘is a microcosm of the Department of Defence, with ground, air, and maritime components, a global presence, and authorities and responsibilities that mirror the Military Departments, Military Services, and Defence Agencies.’

Tasked to coordinate all Pentagon planning against global terrorism networks and, as a result, closely connected to other government agencies, foreign militaries, and intelligence services, and armed with a vast inventory of stealthy helicopters, manned fixed-wing aircraft, heavily-armed drones, high-tech guns-a-go-go speedboats, specialized Humvees and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, as well as other state-of-the-art gear (with more on the way), SOCOM represents something new in the military. Whereas the late scholar of militarism Chalmers Johnson used to refer to the CIA as ‘the president’s private army’, today JSOC performs that role, acting as the chief executive’s private assassination squad, and its parent, SOCOM, functions as a new Pentagon power-elite, a secret military within the military possessing domestic power and global reach.

In 120 countries across the globe, troops from Special Operations Command carry out their secret war of high-profile assassinations, low-level targeted killings, capture/kidnap operations, kick-down-the-door night raids, joint operations with foreign forces, and training missions with indigenous partners as part of a shadowy conflict unknown to most Americans. Once ‘special’ for being small, lean, outsider outfits, today they are special for their power, access, influence, and aura.

That aura now benefits from a well-honed public relations campaign which helps them project a superhuman image at home and abroad, even while many of their actual activities remain in the ever-widening shadows. Typical of the vision they are pushing was this statement from Admiral Olson: ‘I am convinced that the forces… are the most culturally attuned partners, the most lethal hunter-killers, and most responsive, agile, innovative, and efficiently effective advisors, trainers, problem-solvers, and warriors that any nation has to offer.’

Recently at the Aspen Institute’s Security Forum, Olson offered up similarly gilded comments and some misleading information, too, claiming that US Special Operations forces were operating in just 65 countries and engaged in combat in only two of them. When asked about drone strikes in Pakistan, he reportedly replied, ‘Are you talking about un-attributed explosions?’

What he did let slip, however, was telling. He noted, for instance, that black operations like the bin Laden mission, with commandos conducting heliborne night raids, were now exceptionally common. A dozen or so are conducted every night, he said. Perhaps most illuminating, however, was an offhand remark about the size of SOCOM. Right now, he emphasised, US Special Operations forces were approximately as large as Canada’s entire active duty military. In fact, the force is larger than the active duty militaries of many of the nations where America’s elite troops now operate each year, and it’s only set to grow larger.

Americans have yet to grapple with what it means to have a ‘special’ force this large, this active, and this secret—and they are unlikely to begin to do so until more information is available. It just won’t be coming from Olson or his troops. ‘Our access [to foreign countries] depends on our ability to not talk about it,’ he said in response to questions about SOCOM’s secrecy. When missions are subject to scrutiny like the bin Laden raid, he said, the elite troops object. The military’s secret military, said Olson, wants ‘to get back into the shadows and do what they came in to do.’

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Cruel Joke

THE advice of the commerce minister, Faruq Khan, i.e. people should eat less in order to avoid problems like adulteration and price spiral of food, could very well have been an impertinent attempt at inane humour over two issues of serious public concern gone inevitably wrong. Or, it could have been merely an articulation of the minister’s deep-seated indifference to the misery of the people at large, who have been reeling under the twin menaces of food adulteration and food insecurity for long. Worse still, as reported in New Age on Friday, the minister’s conclusion at a discussion on food adulteration on Thursday—i.e. people did not die taking less food; rather, they ran less risk of consuming adulterated food—seems to suggest that he may be completely estranged from real life and real people. The most innocuous interpretation of the minister’s assertion could be that he was trying to make light of his and his government’s abject failure to rein in the prices of food and other essential commodities, and put an end to adulteration of foot items. On every count, though, his remarks are irresponsible and thus unacceptable.

The commerce minister seems to have chosen to conveniently ignore certain cruel facts of life for the vast multitude. According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, food inflation in general hit a record 14.36 per cent in April while in rural areas, where most of the poor and marginalised people live, it hit 15.38 per cent—an increase of 5.02 per cent in just one year. In the wake of sustained surge in food prices, people at large have had to spend almost 60 per cent of their income on food, so indicates a host of surveys, including one by the Asian Development Bank. Also, a study by the Consumers’ Association of Bangladesh conducted late last year pointed out that low-income people have had to cut down on their food intake, risking nutrition deficiency, to cope with the price spiral. In other words, a sizeable section of the population has been forced to do what the minister suggested Thursday—i.e. eat less. Unfortunately, given rampant adulteration of food items and the government apparent failure to prevent it, it cannot be said with certainty that less intake for them has meant less risk of consumption of adulterated food.

Just the other day, the parliamentary standing committee on the commerce ministry came down hard on the minister and his ministry for their apparent failure to keep the prices of essentials on check. Earlier, the High Court ordered the government to deploy as many mobile courts as possible to make sure unscrupulous traders do not jack up the prices of certain food items to make a windfall during the month of Ramadan. Overall, thus far, since the Awami League-Jatiya Party government assumed office in January 2009, the commerce minister and his ministry have done precious little to deliver on the ruling party’s electoral pledge of keeping the prices within the reach of the common people.

Yet, the commerce minister, instead of showing remorse, could manage to come up with a suggestion that amounts to a cruel joke about the misery of the people at large. The minister and, for that matter, the government need to realise that if they cannot effectively address the price spiral, the least they can do is stop trivialising the people’s misery.