The case of Nafis and the perpetual state of denial

This article was originally published on bdnews24.com on 9 May 2012. **

October 26, 2012

Court drawing of alleged New York bomb plotter Quazi Mohammed Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis and his target, the Federal Reserve Bank. Photo: Reuters

Court drawing of alleged New York bomb plotter Quazi Mohammed Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis and his target, the Federal Reserve Bank. Photo: Reuters

The world obviously is not a perfect place. The sheer multitude of stories from different corners of the world is overwhelming. The more interconnected we are, the more we get to learn about different cultures, cohesion and conflicts among us. Yet, what baffles me is when we fail to make a leap beyond the subtle idiocies that always reverses all the hard-won progress we have made. One of the major reasons for our failure to apprehend our nuisances is that we put ourselves in a perpetual state of denial, remaining complacent in false pride and happy to point our finger to a convenient scapegoat.

The news about student Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis’ bomb plot in the Federal Reserve Bank shocked the Bangladeshi community all over the world. The immediate defence was that such an act belies every characteristics of Bengali identity. How can a nation that was founded on the idea of secularism, fighting a war against the then West Pakistan’s atrocities be smeared by the sheer stupidity of this lad! The ‘wisdom’ goes further: such a heinous act can only be perpetrated by the people from countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia – but not Bangladesh! No wonder that a friend of mine, who is well educated and a successful professional in one of the top investment banks in New York, recently posted in his facebook status addressing to Nafis, “Next time you want to blow something up, do us all a favor [and] go kill yourself. Short of that, at least renounce your Bangladeshi citizenship first and get Pakistani or Saudi citizenship before doing something stupid….” This was an offensive comment that demonstrate our foolhardiness and the perpetual state of denial we live in.

As a Bangladeshi citizen, born and brought up with the right dose of nationalism during my school years, I have been recently struggling to relate to the edifice of Bangladesh I once had built in my heart. The only answer to my confusion that I seem to come up with is we have given too much importance to the bombast of the label or the brand we have created called ‘Bangladesh’ to an extent that we have complacently distanced ourselves from the values, what collectively should have been Bangladesh. In essence, we have been fashionable at disregarding those values and failed to stand for them. Instead, we cling to a delusion that as a Bangladeshi, we stand on a higher ground as a distinct cultural group. That is why, it is very easy to point to a Pakistani, an Afghani or a Somali and blame them.

Photo: Reuters

Photo: Reuters

Of course, one cannot deny the critical challenges these countries face, religious extremism, radicalism, Taliban, regular suicide bombings, destructions of schools and hospitals, abysmal record of human rights, marginalization of women and the list goes on. The recent Malala case is one fresh example. However, that does not serve as a testimonial for the corruption of a whole nation. Personally, living in Canada, a country where immigration helped and continues to build a diverse society, I came to appreciate different people and their cultures, whether they be from Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India or any European country. We all share similar dreams; we all strive to be better individuals; we all work hard and take pride for our cultures and values which are all equally rich.

Then, perhaps it’s the conditions that drive the individuals but not their nationality or culture to be corrupt. On the one hand, the path dependency of political and historical development has left its mark in many places, which made it extremely difficult for them to breakthrough the cycle of violence and prosper. The problems in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia are a few such examples. There is a history of mistreatment and negligence that have made the FATA region a breeding ground for extremists in Pakistan. The political history of Afghanistan, Somalia or any other countries bear the same responsibility for their terrible fate. On the other hand, many societal and political factors are now creating history by damaging the very essence of the public goods. The ongoing CHT violence in Bangladesh, the marginalization of the minority groups in east India, Rohingyas in Myanmar and many native groups in South America are a few such examples to name.

At the core of these problems are the values of fundamental human rights and dignities which are constantly being threatened, molested and moreover, overlooked. The Bangalis did not fight for a country in 1971. They fought for their rights first and foremost. ‘Bangladesh’ was only a collateral entity. If the emerging ‘Bangladesh’ was suppose to be the collective identity of the values and rights the freedom fighters fought for, then we should be sensible to realize that those values are not higher than that of other nations. And when we as individuals slip from our higher moral ground, let us not blindfold ourselves with the delusion that it cannot possibly happen to us. The catastrophic dehumanization among the Bangladeshis, when the local Muslim settlers ravaged the Buddhist temples in Chittagong lately, serves as a testimonial. The ongoing CHT violence is also another example that many Bangladeshis are not comfortable to talk about. This is when we overlook our problems. We put ourselves in the perpetual state of denial that terrible things cannot be done by us, pointing fingers to others for blames. As much as we long for Pakistan to acknowledge its responsibility for the genocide in ’71, we take comfort in denial that we too may be responsible for terrible policies destroying a minority group’s life and culture within the imaginary border that derives Bangladesh. To be honest, many nations suffer from such a state of denial. America is one such example where President Obama lost support once for acknowledging that the U.S. is not the only greatest nation on earth. Taking pride in one’s identity is helpful to motivate to strive for better. However, it is time to take a leap beyond the evolutionary instinct to extol the in-group while underestimating out-groups.

Finally, Nafis’ case shows that the Bangladeshi youth are not immune from religious radicalization. If he is responsible for such an act, which apparently the case, then it only points to the fact that any other student alike Nafis can be made corrupt, who could be equally deemed and vouched by his/her family and friends as innocent and whose middle-class family can give up their hard-earned assets for his/her study abroad in good faith. This is not to say that it is a chronic problem in Bangladesh. Nevertheless, it puts many youth like you and me under fire. The question is how can this occur? The responsibility to pose this question disproportionally lies on the shoulder of the youth of Bangladesh. There are many problems and more to do, but first of all, we need to acknowledge our problems first.

Link to the original site: <http://opinion.bdnews24.com/2012/10/26/the-case-of-nafis-and-the-perpetual-state-of-denial/&gt;

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Iran’s nuclear programme : A crisis gone haywire?

This article was originally published on bdnews24.com on 9 May 2012.

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James Blight – my professor in a class of only four students – told us that you cannot expect an Iranian to start talking about anything current on U.S. without mentioning once about the 1953 coupe. I could see the proof when he moderated a charged-up discussion later between the former Iranian ambassador Hussein Mousavian and the former U.S. ambassador Thomas Pickering at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo. After a short initial start by Pickering, a long informative rejoinder by Mousavian began with the coup of 1953 and ended with the current stand-off between Iran and the U.S. The audience could grasp Iran’s anger, distrust, wariness, frustration and perhaps, hopelessness vis-à-vis the U.S. and the rest of the world. Soon, it was clear that the two hours of talk could hardly produce anything meaningful which could give the audience a basis for hope that the nuclear crisis in Iran would not turn into another intractable military conflict in the Middle East.

This situation prompts many questions in mind. Instead of attempting to predict an uncertain future of Iran, however, let’s be conservative and ask a reasonable question for a sensible answer: what brought Iran into such precarious ominous position?

The current standing of Iran’s nuclear programme, including uranium enrichment does not go beyond its sovereign right under any international law. The dual-capacity to enrich higher level of uranium – that could be either used for peaceful use or diverted for military purpose – does not violate international law as long as it is accountable to the IAEA. Several countries possess such dual-capacity, one of which Japan – which does not have a nuclear weapon programme – can make nuclear bombs approximately within six months if it wants to. So why then Iran is a matter of headache for world peace and security?

First, Iran is framed as an aggressive country by the hawks in the West. However, Iran’s last 200 years of history belies that assertion. Iran has neither attacked any country nor does it have an offensive military posture. Nevertheless, its foreign policy towards Israel is threatening to an extent that its supreme leader calls to uproot Israel from the world map. Iran is also notorious for carrying out terrorist attack in third party states. So the fear of an Iran with dual-nuclear capacity is alarming for the West, especially for the U.S. which has a security pact with Israel.

However, this fear would have been unfounded if Iran’s nuclear programme were transparent. That is the second reason for headache. Iran has been inconsistent in its effort to open up its nuclear facilities for IAEA inspection. Even Khatami – who took an unprecedented initiative for a dialogue with the U.S. during his term – was caught off-guard when the then Egyptian IAEA director El Baradei accused him for concealing information with proof concerning its nuclear activities.

That being said, the underlying nuclear crisis is much more dynamic and complex. Iran is right to blame the U.S. for its decade long antagonistic policy, starting from the 1953 coupe that overthrew the first democratically elected prime minister in Iran, to supporting a brutal regime under the Shah, its policy of supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, countless sanctions against Iran and the list goes on.

Nevertheless, in spite of all its astringent rhetoric against the U.S., Iran dearly wants to normalize its relations with it. From Rafsanjani’s administration to Khatami and even during Ahmedinejad’s administration, there have been numerous attempts by Iran to re-establish its relations with the U.S. The ‘grand bargain’ – offered during the 2003 U.S. attack in Iraq – is a famous one. It is not surprising at all, and in fact, it is more rational for the two countries to cooperate since their mutual geopolitical interests in the Middle East are quite common. Yet, all efforts failed due to many unfortunate circumstances; when Iran was serious the U.S. domestic politics was not propitious and when the U.S. was committed – only once during Clinton’s second term – Iran’s domestic politics was impeding. Moreover, miscommunication during these numerous attempts further fuelled mutual distrust and misunderstanding.

On top of this unfortunate relations, Israel and the Arab countries have effectively made things worse. The Benjamin Netaneyahu’s centre-right government has successfully inflated Iran’s nuclear programme to a state of security ‘crisis.’ The Arab countries – notably Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. – have a long cold war with Iran, which shows how divided the Muslim world is when it comes to maintaining regional Sunni supremacy against its Shia identity. As a consequence, the hawks in the U.S. government have been winning on this issue, imposing political pressure on the Obama administration to an extent that a few recent breakthroughs in negotiation with Iran – such as the one brokered by Turkey and Brazil in 2009 – were spoiled. The forthcoming U.S. presidential election has made the situation more sensitive politically.

However, a few recent developments have started changing the circumstances that promise some hope; although one needs to be cautious to make such assertion. It is in Obama’s best interest to prevent an Israel attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, let alone a full scale military conflict. It will be a catch-22 situation for Obama if Israel attacks Iran. It can neither stay uninvolved nor can let the situation worsen once it shoulders Israel’s military security, since it is highly likely that Iran will go into a full scale counter attack. Both cases will severely weaken Obama’s chance for a second term.

Finally, Netaneyahu’s administration has been encountering tough challenges domestically. Israel’s former prime minister Olmert, former Mossad chief Dagan and former Shin Bet chief Diskin has effectively weakened Israel’s justification to attack Iran. According to them, an attack on Iran’s nuclear facility can only force it to develop nuclear bomb eventually. Israel’s attack against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility in 1981 serves as a perfect example, which caused Saddam to initiate nuclear weapon program. The top U.S. military brass and their intelligence have come to a consensus that Iran does not have a plan for nuclear weapon program yet. The Israeli lobby group, the J Street has also been trying their best to reframe the crisis in the U.S. against the powerful AIPEC. Furthermore, the recent sanctions against Iran have effectively weakened the country. Iran realized that it cannot run more than a year without drastic domestic consequences under the current sanctions.

What lies ahead is uncertain but critical. It is easy to dissect a crisis – although not always – but equally difficult to predict the end. As James Blight – an expert on Cuban Missile Crisis and one of the key figures behind the making of The Fog of War with former U.S. Secretary of States McNamara– made it clear in my class, the challenge is always to restrain the hawks among all the parties. Kennedy was successful in 1962. Obama is yet to show such brinksmanship before his election concerning Iran’s nuclear programme.

Link to the original site: <http://opinion.bdnews24.com/2012/05/09/irans-nuclear-programme-a-crisis-gone-haywire/&gt;

Pakistan – Hedging Democracy with the Generals

This article was originally published on bdnews24.com on 21 January 2012. Co-wrote with Hira Siddiqui.

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In the latest development in a series of political upheavals, the so-called democratic government of Pakistan has opted for a head-on collision with its strong military leadership. The ties between the two power houses began with the Memogate scandal in which the former Pakistani Ambassador to the US Hussain Haqqani reportedly sent a memo to the White House on behalf of President Zardari to request the US to keep the Pakistani army at bay.

As the Supreme Court of Pakistan dealt with the Memogate case and demanded responses from both civilian and military leaders, a clash of opinions surfaced. The prime minister accused the military of submitting responses to the Supreme Court against its approval. As a result, the military has responded of harsh consequences to the extent that the country finds itself on the brink of yet another military coup. However, the tension might recede given the generals already held meetings with the prime minister and the president of Pakistan.

Trailing back from this recent development to the countless previous ones, it only confirms that Pakistan is a drama that never stops short of entertaining the world media. The storyline usually evolves around nationalistic pride with an ever complicated relationship with a big brother. The story also includes a romantic sense of having an enemy neighbour and a backyard turf in Afghanistan for a spectacle of espionage mastery. Once in a while, the show gets its cyclical climax with a few general’s showdown in the name of saving the sacred country. It is a tale never to end with a happy ending, at least as it appears from the last 60 years. The only problem is that it’s a drama in reality, its victims are real lives and the loss is a whole country’s unrealised potentials. It is a drama where the big shots have been skilfully deceiving its people, who are supposed to be the main actors instead.

Anecdotes and analogies aside, a careful look at Pakistan’s external and domestic actors can reveal that everyone is playing along with a vested interest in mind that has nothing to do with Pakistan’s own good. Firstly, there is its ‘complicated relationship’ with the US. Despite all the short honeymoons, Pakistan very well understands that the US has always been taking advantage of their mutual relationship to its own end. From the cold war period to the current Afghan war, the relationship only gets rosy when Pakistan defers to their strategic interests.

Then there is Pakistan’s domestic politics, which is nothing more than an unsavoury tale of moral bankruptcy. It does not matter whether it is Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) or Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), Pakistan has been forced to marry the choice between these two, who are equally corrupt, incompetent and weak with a facade of democracy. For a ruling party, it is more important to keep the generals happy than making sure the people were satisfied. After all, in Pakistan, an unhappy military changes the government, not an unhappy population. When the carrot doesn’t work well, the governments are deft at using the US as a stick in the name of democracy. Perhaps, the Memogate scandal sounds relevant here.

The US themselves are more than happy to sponsor either party depending whichever works best in their interest. No wonder that Pakistan became a ‘front-line ally’ against the communists under General Zia-ul-Haq and a ‘strong ally’ against the War on Terror under General Musharraf and during Zardari’s period.

However, isn’t it normal for a country to be rational to engage in foreign affairs for its own strategic gain? It also appears conventional for political parties to do whatever in their means to remain in power. After all, unstable, illiberal democracies are not rare among developing countries. So why is Pakistan’s an attractive story?

Part of it because, Pakistan is situated in a conflict prone region. But it is mostly because the military generals in Pakistan hold all the aces, and they play it very well either by deploying their toys on the streets of Islamabad or rather being discreet in their drawing room politics. Accustomed to being coaxed by the US and the ruling political parties, they have become fashionably obdurate with an egotistic sense of patriotism. Also, their right arm, the ISI and its clandestine murky activities appeared as an overshoot of its own credo, ‘faith, unity and discipline.’ Together they have become an added burden in Pakistan’s own good.

However, Pakistan military’s popularity has been at its lowest ebb since the discovery of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad and the death of journalist Saleem Shahzad. Nonetheless, the country’s fate is unequivocally tied with the generals’ discreet approval. It has never been so conspicuous until recently with the US’ struggle with the Talibans. It is little wonder that Admiral Mike Mullen spent so much time with General Kayani the past four years. However, relentless events from Operation Neptune Spear in Abbottabad to the ISI’s double play between the ‘good Taliban’ and the ‘bad Taliban,’ a sense of suspicion, anger and betrayal overshadowed the US-Pakistan strategic allegiance. The complicated relationship has reached its tipping point with NATO’s air strike recently on Pakistan military.

At this critical juncture, what awaits depends on who plays what and how for Pakistan. The US is desperate for a stopgap in Afghanistan before their troops’ withdrawal in 2014. The Talibans are waiting with a clock ticking towards an opportunity for their resurgence. The various factions in Afghanistan are already making calculations and eyeing for a future through their warlord lens. Furthermore, the US is more concerned about Pakistan strategically, since its nukes are a matter of its headache. As such, who curves the fait accompli for Pakistan?

In an ideal world, it should be the people of Pakistan. Unfortunately, the shackles of sham democracy make this simpler said than done. The people have tested the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League who, despite a different façade each time, have yet to prove their worth. Both parties have been in office more than once but have little to boast of.

Right now, the tempting option is to take a bold step, choose a person who promises change and clearly enjoys massive support. But is Imran Khan the step in the right direction? Khan’s success story in Pakistani politics is nothing short of a fairytale. He did not only manage to gather an impressive crowd in Lahore, but the rally in Karachi proved that the man is different from the rest. He infiltrated into a territory that few have treaded before. Dismissing all sceptics that Karachi will let itself be controlled by no one but the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the city rose in all its glory.

The euphoria will, however, not last for long. Khan may take a bold stance against the US and publicly declare his assets, but when it comes to the military, he knows the generals must be kept pleased. The fingers are already pointing at him for kindling relations with the military, but he knows that if he stands any chance of success, he will need that discreet nod from the men in khakis. Despite the impending tsunami, it appears that Khan is unlikely to form a majority government on his own in the 2013 elections and may perhaps settle for a coalition. Politics, it seems, will only get murkier in the coming years.

Pakistan is in a delusional state where the military’s dominant position is denied and it is referred under the nickname of ‘security establishment’. Precisely because, the manufactured consent of India being an arch enemy sells very well. In such a state, the forthcoming elections give little hope for change. Even if it happens, the revolution will not be a clear one. Khan may manage to wake up the people to fight for the country, but it is going to be a long time before the military lets go.

Link to the original site: <http://opinion.bdnews24.com/2012/01/21/pakistan-%E2%80%93-hedging-democracy-with-the-generals/&gt;

Pakistan: A state in crisis

This article was published on bdnews24.com on 23rd July, 2011.

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Pakistan as a sovereign state is a geographic reality dictated by its boundary, but its internal and external strategic policy indicates that it is no less than a state in serious crisis. Furthermore, the identity that Pakistan as a country enshrines since its conception has become contorted as much as it remains an unfinished and fragmented cause. Pakistan’s inept leaders successfully manufactured India as its existential threat and is complacent to be preoccupied by such idea. It helps to bolster their cause of being an Islamic state and keeps the army at bay, ignoring the fact it is virtually hijacked by its gigantic military establishment. The contemporary political Pakistan testifies enough that some extraordinary and painful works still needed to be done for the cause of its identity and its statehood. Furthermore, this has to be done accounting the strategic reality of Pakistan.

Since the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) by the US forces, Pakistan’s neighbour: Afghanistan’s condition has changed for better or for worse. At least, it had two parliamentary elections and has a functioning democracy albeit a very imperfect one. It is a country at war and the ISAF and the US forces are still struggling to fend off the Taliban, despite a surge in troops by Obama administration and the development of a ‘professional’ Afghan security sector. Pakistan has a strategic interest in its neighbour since Afghanistan has long been considered its ‘strategic depth’.

However, Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan turns out to be rather ineffective, at least during the post-cold war era. Misguided by the historical proximity to Taliban, Pakistan takes Taliban as a safer bet for its stable sway over Afghanistan for the long run. Predicting that Taliban will ultimately survive the NATO and US onslaught, Pakistan’s covert proximity to Taliban is not beyond credible suspicion. Therefore, it is not surprising at all that as much as the geography of Pak-Afghan border appears to be difficult to scramble for uprooting the Taliban, complicity of Pakistan’s former or current intelligence commanders is equally a significant factor for the Taliban and other Islamic militant groups’ resilience.

Numerous sources underscores that Pakistan’s ISI personnel directly or indirectly provide supports to Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, Hizbul Mujahedeen and Haqqani Network. Recent uproar in Pakistan’s journalist society after the murder of Saleem Shahzad further testifies the extent of the ISI’s complicity in maintaining active contacts with the militants. Besides Saleem Shahzad, there were numerous others who disappeared, murdered or forced to shut their mouth whenever the ISI was under the attack of investigative journalism. In fact, in addition to the ISI complicity, Pakistan’s military was suspected of being infiltrated by the Islamic extremist ideology which raised significant question for the safety of its nuclear arsenals.

Furthermore, Pakistani commander’s parallel role of fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in one front in the name of counter-terrorism and its simultaneous support of various Islamic militant groups on the other, have caused critical lack of trust between the military and the militants. These militant groups’ link either with the Taliban or with the al-Qaeda has enabled both not only to withstand the war waged by the US and the current Afghan government but also to get reinforced and to retaliate from Pakistan’s rear.

Moreover, it is the frontline Pakistani soldiers and the poor civilians, whose eventual karma is to be an IDP, pay the price of Pakistan government’s pretentious war. The irony is that the same philosophy of these groups that Pakistan exploits as a proxy drive against its arch enemy India for the cause of Kashmir, can and will be eventually a bitter pill to swallow for itself. If Afghanistan as an institutional democracy and an Islamic republic by constitution falls short of being a Dar-ul-Islam (land of Islam), Pakistan too will not be spared when time is ripe for these militant groups vying to establish their control over Pakistan. As such, Pakistan’s relationship with the US as well as with its neighbours fails to cement durable and meaningful trust.

Somewhere back in the history, Pakistan also lost the cause of its national interest in its people. When the struggle to improve the lot of its own people should be the raison d’Etat of Pakistan as a state, its national interest became over occupied by its animosity towards India. Its revered military who often gets the blank cheque from its people is either preoccupied playing war games with India or too eager to rule the country whenever it deems necessary.

However, it is not only the military that is responsible but also the political parties and their inept leadership for over 60 years. The reason Pakistan as a state is an unfinished task is because it still has a vast area under FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area) which is ruled under the FCA (Frontier Crime Regulation) act of 1901 that denies fundamental rights to the tribal population with opaque governance mechanism run by the Pakistani bureaucrats. Discriminating jirga-justice based on customary laws fails to ensure any form of democratic rights to its residents. They are victims of both the militants as well as the whimsical rule by the government Pakistani Agents (PA). When justice is denied and the state fails to establish democratic rights, 60 years are enough for its residents to lose any sense of affiliation with the Pakistani cause.

It is not indifferent either when Pakistan is also taken as a fragmented identity taking into account of Baluchistan, where provincial and federal government rely more on military solution rather than a political one for quelling the Baluch cause. The number of insurgents there may have declined after decades of Pakistani military’s brutal operation but the face and nature of the insurgents transformed too. The new insurgents with leaders such as Allah Nazar of BLF (Baloch Liberation Front) and their sympathizers are now from the educated class, who has a more critical reason for their struggle against Pakistan. They are the result of the oppression by the Pakistani military establishments. Even the Sindh province is not immune from communal crisis where party politics are still run along the ethnic cleavage, where whether one is Muhajir or not is more important. Deadly riot as recent as the one in July is a proof of that.

Provided all these complex internal crisis and Pakistan’s geopolitic nightmare, it can still thrive to be a strong nation only when as a state, it cares less to develop short range missiles with tactical nuclear warhead and cares more to improve its governance. Pakistan has to prove still worthy of being a state which invests into its people’s welfare instead of prioritizing military aid. It also has to take a foreign policy that is multilateral instead of either aligning with the US or China only.

Finally, Pakistan should take the new opportunity of settling unresolved issues with India and not jeopardize the bilateral peace effort by its ISI’s covert support to militant groups against India. It is never too late for its leaders to think hard how to rein in its belligerent intelligence establishment.

What’s holding Bangladesh back from implementing the CHT accord?

This article was published on bdnews24.com on 25th June, 2011

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The status quo of the CHT crisis has become a ‘sticky’ matter for Bangladesh. The government, both under the ruling and the opposition parties, have taken a very similar approach of not recognizing the indigenous people in the constitution. This implies GoB’s unwillingness to provide special privileges to the country’s tribal minorities as indigenous population. Over a decade after the CHT ‘peace’ accord, the abysmal slow process of its implementation can only suggest two possible reasons behind the delay: either the GoB does not want to implement the peace accord or it doubts the political wisdom of the accord, that it only wants to take a passive approach of dawdling. However, neither stance can produce anything but an intractable crisis, which can only destabilize the region unnecessarily.

The conventional wisdom of military pundits is to establish its authority in a disputed region and use force to quell any unrest. The practice and record of Bangladesh Armed Forces in the CHT testifies this very well. As such, it is not surprising at all that the presence of military with an excuse for ‘security’ has become a severe contentious issue in the CHT. The underlying security dilemma is bound to spiral into an ever worse scenario. As a consequence, one after another tussle in CHT in every year has only been aggravating this crisis.

Furthermore, the GoB has taken a simultaneous political sponsorship of settlers in the CHT with downright denial of such policy. The scarcity of land is the only excuse that is manufactured behind this ‘normal’ migration. The fact is that when most of the arable land in CHT is already submerged under the Kaptai Lake and only the indigenous people have been well accustomed to the jhum cultivation, the disillusion of migration for a promised land only fuels anger among the settlers. This is further accentuated by growing competition for land between the settlers and the indigenous people. Not surprisingly, after just over a year of the incident in the villages of Baghaihat and Khagrchhari, another fight erupts in Ramgarh in mid-April this year. Subsequently what follows is a blame game, which is another facade that veils the true evil which is nothing but the sticky status quo of the GoB policy regarding the CHT. The misery it inflicts among both the settlers and the tribal communities questions the very pillar of the nation’s conscience. The poor victim’s hopeless fate is strangled into oblivion by the very policy of the GoB, or perhaps is gagged into another crisis — yet to unfold! It is a pity that the GoB fails to realize the ineptitude of its policy when years to date, it only kept the crisis alive, if not made it worse.

First, there should not be any question in the wisdom of the CHT Accord. It is the best possible alternative to a protracted low level insurgency in the CHT. The wisdom of the CHT Accord is that it is a political solution, not a military one. With the disarmament process of the Shanti Bahini, Bangladesh was fortunate to avert an intractable insurgency. The geography of the CHT demonstrates the impossibility of a successful counter insurgency (COIN). Moreover, the methods and records of the COIN itself by various military forces, not to mention the neighbouring India’s failed effort against the Maoists, only demonstrates how arduous and perennial task it is. It drains a nation’s resources, corrupts its morals and conscience, puts enormous stress to numerous lives, and leaves a black hole in anything it takes prides for its history. Even the US armed forces encountered enormous difficulty in COIN operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Also, Sri Lanka’s precedents of excessive use of force against Tamil militants is not an alternative either to the CHT case which can result in possible war crimes. It will undo the pride every Bangladeshi takes into its history. Therefore, there is no alternative to a political solution. However, the GoB appears to provide more importance to what the military elites have to say. The minutes from the ministerial meeting held in January demonstrates that the GoB is more keen to listen to the military commanders in curbing access to the CHT area. Their saleable excuse is ‘the foreigners’ hidden agenda’. The government must realise that as long as it has a clear, strong and effective policy and is adamant to implement it with credible initiative, no quarter can exploit the CHT issue whether they be external forces or the internal ones. This facade of blame game of ‘hidden agenda’ has to stop for national interest.

Furthermore, the recent development of natural gas exploration in the CHT region is very relevant to this topic and need some elaboration. A very recent report by the Financial Express Bangladesh illustrates the Chinese state companies’ interest in gas exploration in the CHT region. The scepticism that the GoB’s ineffective policy of status quo is to maintain its command over the CHT’s natural resources — yet to be explored, will soon become obvious in every quarter. Marginalizing ethnic minorities for natural resource has set grave precedents from Nigeria, Sudan, Kurds in Iraq, Timor-Leste to the obvious brutal history of former colonial powers. Also, in very few cases natural resource became a boon to its country’s development when that country is still struggling to develop economically. The natural resource being a ‘resource curse/trap’ for the developing world has already drawn considerable attention. There is reason to be concerned that how much the people of Bangladesh can actually benefit from the natural resource revenue when the practice of corruption is endemic in the country. Bangladesh is not even a member of the EITI (Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative) for a transparent and accountable exploration and utilisation of natural resources by the government and the extractive companies.

Moreover, China’s policy of ‘no question asked’ for exploiting a country’s natural resource does not serve positively for that country. This is well obvious from China’s practice of resource exploitation in Africa. The apparent ‘lucrative’ deals with the Chinese state companies without such mechanisms of transparency and accountability will only accentuate the GoB’s perverse interest to use force to maintain its command over the CHT region. The 2nd May press release by the CHT Commission, which shows the unnecessary and infringing practice of intimidation by the NSI agents at a media workshop on CHT issue, already provides the snippet of more possible encroachment in future by the military quarter on the civil society. This has to stop immediately if the GoB is sincere to establish and consolidate peace in the region.

Finally, for any political solution to be an effective and a sustainable one, it has to be a win-win solution. The CHT Accord is indeed one such political solution. It accepts many demands by the indigenous people, albeit it falls short of giving them regional autonomy. It assures land rights, self-governance and practice of their customs. On Bangladesh state’s end, the accord promises sustainable peace and stability for the whole region. Moreover, it ensures security for Chittagong being a crucial port adjacent to the CHT area. However, the success of the accord’s implementation lies mostly on settling the land right issue for the indigenous communities. This is a very sensitive matter but an imperative one to pave the way to greater stability for the region. As such, the GoB has to demonstrate an honest willingness and take effective measures to stop sponsoring settlers indirectly and furthermore, craft a consensual deal between the existing settlers and the tribal community. The GoB must realize that there is no alternative to that and the more they loiter redressing the land issue, the more adverse it will get in future.

The GoB’s ignorance will turn the competition for land more aggressive, ending in more frequent and bloodier unrest between the settlers and the indigenous people. Frustration and sense of being treated unfairly and unjustly will only stoke the anger further, setting the whole region a perfect breeding ground for armed hostilities. In fact, the current trend of arsons, armed attack and resistance from both groups further testifies that the process has already started.

The GoB must accept the fact that any form of unabated injustice to a minority further facilitates perverse interest in its community. It does not help to assimilate them to the greater community through normal social mobility. ‘Force’ cannot be the answer, instead ensuring education and employment is the only way to help them assimilate to the greater economic prosperity. Second, the geography in the CHT illustrates that massive logging and systematic hill-cutting are the only solution to materialize the illusion of promised abundant and untouched land for the settlers to grab. This is neither a practical solution nor is it deserved for environmental reason since it can lead to frequent mudslides, draining of natural resources, destruction of natural habitat and further economic costs. Therefore, it is in Bangladesh’s national interest, that the GoB acknowledges that there exists a settlers problem in the CHT area and takes effective and clear measure to redress it. The situation is still ‘ripe’ to intervene and implement the CHT Accord.

The incident that took place in Ramgarh on 17th April is a very sad case. In fact, it is outrageous that such incidents are allowed to take place incessantly in the CHT region, year after year. The civil society is urging the GoB for an immediate and appropriate action. The victims are still looking forward to a political solution. The government should not deny the indigenous people recognition in the constitution and stay away from a real problem of the crisis. Bangladesh should set precedents of keeping its promises instead of colonizing in its own territory by marginalizing its ethnic minorities. That will be the other side of Bangladesh nationality, a rather dark one. Then, one fears there will be no doubt to recognise the ethnic minorities as indigenous in future when the Bengalis brutalise them in their own land. Then the current Foreign Minister Dipu Moni will have a reason to regret in retrospect for saying, “Bangladesh does not have any indigenous population.”

Life is not ours

Photo by Jashim Salam


This article was originally published as an op-ed article on The Daily Star on February 26, 2010. For the original link, click here.

CHITTAGONG is on fire. The scattered, burning charcoal is still warm. People say it takes a whole life’s work to save a little, ensure a roof above your head and have a family of your own to live with. As the shacks burn and people flee, the lives of the countless indigenous people are shattered in a single night!

The culprits are the Pakistani hanadar bahini — correction: the Bengalis. Is it because they are conveniently labelled as “indigenous” or Paharis? Or is it because only the Bengalis have a glorious history that makes us superior to them? Us and them — a convenient juxtaposition — as if it is an inevitable part of our identical jingoistic whims!

Let’s get to the hard facts. The CHT Commission presented “Life is not ours” report more than a decade ago. As concerned citizens, we are not unaware of its contents. The CHT Peace Accord never got implemented. As governments changed, so did the politics of rhetoric, promises and the game plan of blaming bohir shokti. Kalpana Chakma’s abduction, the brutal death of Choles Ritchil and others, are not isolated incidents. They have been the ethos of everything CHT people breathe in with their identity of indigenousness — our glorious Bengali’s gift to them.

Sajek is the culmination of all the problems we have been ignoring to leave behind unaccounted for. As Mahajan Para, Modhupur, Baghaicchori and many other villages burn, and violence continues and more lives are lost, our patriotism “Brand Bangladesh” breathes in complacency of muted media coverage. Going to office, amidst adda and cha, nasta, we might end up saying “we got the army to take care of things.”

The long-lasting military presence is a continuing problem. The government uses the tool, the opposition hurls blame and the political diatribe perpetuates. In the meantime, the CHT Accord breathes in locked-in-syndrome and the military takes pride for being desher shanty rokkhae ottondro prohori. As a result, the names that are carved in the hearts and minds of paharis are Buddhabati, Laxmi, Liton, Bana Shanti, and Nutunjoy Chakma.

However, we still have a Bangladesh where democracy is functioning. The voice belongs to us. It is no one but us who will dig out what is going on and will remember. If there is anything that we can look for to retain the pride of our country’s forefathers, then it is our words and actions. We are ready to take the onus, and today we are all Paharis for a day. We may not fully realise what they are going through, but they can only yearn for our symbolic support and active protest, because we are all Bangladeshis.We will make it clear that in Bangladesh citizens care for each other. We care for Paharis. We have a task to finish, which is to give them back their lives.