Saturday, April 14, 2007

Politics of No Return in Pakistan and Bangladesh

By J. Sri Raman

Friday 13 April 2007

"Speculation is rife in Pakistani media that two-time former Premier Benazir Bhutto is heading for a dramatic showdown with the military regime by flying back into the country along with prominent mediapersons, US and European Union politicians and a battery of lawyers."
That sensational announcement has not followed the declaration by Bhutto on April 2 of a resolve to return to her country. It was a quote from a newspaper report dated August 1, 2002. The spectacular comeback and confrontation never took place.
Much had happened in Pakistan meanwhile. In October 1999, General Pervez Musharraff had staged his coup d'etat. By June 2001, he had proclaimed himself the country's president, albeit with his uniform on. The tragedy of the Twin Towers followed in three months, and the military dictator became a dear ally of the "crusaders for democracy" in Washington.
The US congressmen and lawyers, who were to travel with Bhutto, "rush" to Pakistan's Supreme Court and seek her bail in a corruption case, were perhaps dissuaded. The case against her was considered flimsy, as the court had taken a stern view of her nonappearance before it. The geopolitical case against helping her return, however, seemed to appear stronger for the George W. Bush administration.
The conditions are pretty similar now. Bhutto was reported to be planning her return this time because the court had ordered her retrial, suspending her earlier conviction in a corruption case. The only difference is that she made the earlier announcement from Dubai and made the recent declaration from New York.
Five years ago, she had talked of returning home despite threats of arrest from the Musharraff regime. She has now spoken of returning despite "threats of assassination" - not from Musharraff and his men, but, she has stressed for the sake of official US listeners, from al-Qaeda. The shift in emphasis was no surprise. Not long ago, Musharraff himself was reported to be not averse to the idea of her return (and, a bit earlier, even to a homecoming of the other former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif). Carried away by it all, some have even speculated on a Musharraff-Bhutto compact to retain him as president, but restore her premiership.
In 2002, she was expected to enhance the drama of her return by bringing home with her Sharif, also exiled in Jeddah. He, reportedly, backed out at the last moment, possibly not ready to repose faith in Bhutan and preferring to assign the task of running his party to his close relatives. This time too, both former premiers were expected to make a joint trip back to Pakistan. Again Sharif, whom Musharraff overthrew after the military misadventure in Kargil, has been left out in the cold.
It is not, however, as if Bhutto can look forward to a warm official reception in the land she was forced to flee. Chances, in fact, are that the non-history of 2002 will be repeated. Those waiting for her dramatic return may be in for disappointment a second time. The speculation was, among other things, a result of the recent story of apparently official inspiration in the New York Times (discussed in these columns before). Speculation caused by the story over an early end to the Musharraff rule has been set to rest after Washington's reaffirmation of support for him and his role in "war on global terror."
While we have not heard further about Bhutto's plans, there has been talk of the return of another former premier in another South Asian country. Sheikh Hasina Wajed recently left Bangladesh under an army-backed regime, purportedly to visit relatives in the US, but there is a distinct possibility of the holiday turning into an exile of indefinite duration. The emergency regime, which completed three months on April 11, has made it clear that it is in no hurry for Hasina's return.
She had left Bangladesh with a series of largely laudatory statements about the regime, which is formally under chief adviser Fakhruddin Ahmad. Really, few doubt it is controlled by army chief Moeen U Ahmed. The fact that the regime had arrested her arch rival Begaum Khaleda Zia's son, Tarique Rahman, seemed to add some fervor to Hasina's support for it. While she was in the US, however, the regime categorically ruled out elections until the end of 2008. Hasina reacted by calling the decision "undemocratic and unconstitutional." Instantly, she was confronted with a serious corruption case, charged by a businessman with "extortion" of 30 million takas (about $240,000).
Hasina responded with a Bhutto-like announcement of her decision to return to her country in order to "face the charges." As if on cue, a case was almost immediately filed in a court, charging her with the murder of four members of a rival party, Jamaat-e-Islami, an ally of Khaleda's Bangladesh National Party. An equally Bhutto-like revision of the decision has followed.
Hasina's Awami League has just announced that the leader's return plans have been postponed. Meanwhile, according to reports based on official briefing, the regime is negotiating the terms of a self-exile with Khaleda. It has yet to agree to the former premier's formula, which offers the same escape option to her detained son.
The role of the "crusaders for democracy" in the recent Bangladesh developments is no closely guarded secret. They endorsed the imposition of an emergency regime, along with the cancelation of elections originally due in January. The US may have asked for a "timetable" in regard to the promised elections, but has not demurred unduly at Dhaka's decision to put democracy on hold indefinitely. Lieutenant-General Moeen's "academic" papers, emphatically ruling out a return of Bangladesh to "elective democracy," do not seem have caused the least concern in Washington.
What Pakistan and Bangladesh are witnessing today is a politics of no return - not only for former prime ministers to their countries but, more importantly, for people to self-rule.

A freelance journalist and a peace activist of India, J. Sri Raman is the author of Flashpoint (Common Courage Press, USA).

Source: Truthout

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