A photo-op fraught with misgivings
Friday, 01 February 2008

Autocratic regimes can ensure stability through confiscating people’s rights and spreading fear. However, peace and stability gained through oppression is always fragile and short-lived. If nothing else, one can hope that our chief adviser has realised this by sharing a stage with the likes of Musharraf and Karzai

Shameran Abed

THEY say a picture is worth a thousand words. A picture that was splashed on the front pages of almost every major newspaper in this country last weekend, of our chief adviser, Fakhruddin Ahmed, posing with Pakistan president Parvez Musharraf and Afghan president Hamid Karzai in Davos, may be worth a few more.

That the three leaders and the Iraqi deputy prime minister, Barham Salih, who somehow managed to escape the photo-op, were placed in the same panel by the organisers of the World Economic Forum tells its own story.

But the picture that emerged from the panel, of the three leaders holding hands and smiling for the cameras, showed enough for even the staunchest supporters of this present undemocratic dispensation to feel a little queasy.

Musharraf and Karzai, in addition to being autocratic leaders of their respective countries, are two of the most prominent stooges of the west that is led by an increasingly imperialistic American administration that could not possibly care less about democracy or human rights as long as it is able to insert and sustain regimes around that world that are loyal to it.

Hence, the question on everyone’s mind this week has been: does our military-controlled interim government fall in that same category? It is true that the representatives of many of our western development ‘partners’, including ambassadors, high commissioners and the resident coordinator of the United Nations, played a direct role in the ousting of president Iajuddin Ahmed’s caretaker government last January and in bringing the current regime to power.

They did it through the classic carrot and stick approach, pledging support to a new administration set up by the cantonment on the one hand and threatening our military with ‘implications’ for its international peacekeeping contracts on the other.

Their ploy having worked, our so-called development partners have gone out of their way in the last year to prop up this unelected and undemocratic regime, all along supporting the perpetuation of the state of emergency which has brought along with it the suspension of the people’s fundamental rights.

The influential countries of the west that make up the ‘international community’, typically the vanguard of fundamental rights and human dignity, have turned a blind eye even to the alleged violations of basic human rights, which have reportedly amounted to the torture of people in custody and extrajudicial killings.

Therefore, that the west played a critical role in bringing this military-controlled government to power and continues to be its major backer has not been in any doubt from the very outset. However, it is unlikely that Fakhruddin falls in quite the same category as Musharraf or Karzai, or that the current regime in Bangladesh is one similar to that of Musharraf’s or Karzai’s, not least because Bangladesh is not as important to the west, especially the United States, as Pakistan and Afghanistan are.

Pakistan is now a major US ally in its misguided war on terror, and Afghanistan the principal battlefield in that war. In the case of our country, the stakes are not nearly as high for the United States and its allies.

Therefore, while the west retains the power and influence to be able to chart our future political course, especially now having inserted a government of its liking, our low strategic importance thankfully makes us less susceptible to it doing so to the same extent that it has done in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Yet, there was something incredibly ominous about the picture of the three South Asian leaders smiling for the cameras in Davos, especially with a self-indulgent and hedonistic-looking Musharraf in the middle, holding the hands of his two junior partners.

All three men hold the reins to undemocratic regimes that are reliant upon their respective militaries, in Karzai’s case the US military, and which have their primary constituencies in the west, not among their own people.

Especially Musharraf, who had promised to hand over power to an elected government as early as possible but has now remained in power for more than eight years, has grown more autocratic and daring by the day.

Last year, he sacked the chief justice of Pakistan for the latter’s refusal to fall in line with him and later in the year called a state of emergency and sacked a bunch of high court judges who stood in the way of his attempt to further propagate himself in power.

In the list of the world’s most autocratic regimes, Musharraf’s now ranks among the worst. Seeing our chief adviser posing with such a tyrant only leads to grave misgivings about our own interim government. Is our current regime really interested in furthering the cause of democracy in our country or will it take the queue from Musharraf and remain in power in one form or another for years?

Does it care at all for the fundamental, democratic and political rights of the people of this country, or will it continue to show a blatant disregard for those rights and proceed only to trample them under its foot?

Will it be a government that will be seen, in the final analysis, to have taken our country forward, or will it be a regime under which our country will be deemed to have regressed, politically, economically and culturally?

Needless to say, the signs thus far are not encouraging. Having now consolidated his power in Pakistan and ridden out the wave of dissent that invariably followed the assassination of Benazir Bhutto late last year, Musharraf felt confident enough to offer a word of advice to our chief adviser as they shook hands prior to their panel discussion in Davos: carry on doing what you are doing and don’t bother with human rights.

If the picture itself was not bad enough, Musharraf’s advice to Fakhruddin, which immediately surfaced on the internet after it was picked up by a Wall Street Journal blogger, only adds to common apprehensions. To be fair to Fakhruddin, however, there probably wasn’t much that he could have done to avoid such a picture being taken of him, especially once he had gotten on stage, and neither can he be held responsible for advice that was offered to him by the leader of another country.

However, before agreeing to be part of a panel with Musharraf, Karzai and Salih, the chief adviser ought to have thought about how his sharing a stage with them might be perceived.

Also, his inclusion in a panel titled The Quest for Peace and Stability with other leaders who have incredibly suspect democratic credentials is equally troublesome. Was it being implied that it requires west-inserted, military-controlled, unelected and undemocratic regimes to maintain peace and stability in countries such as ours?

A panel on the quest for peace and stability should have included leaders of countries that have managed to give firm roots to democracy, which is an absolute prerequisite to long-term peace and stability. Autocratic regimes can ensure stability through confiscating people’s rights and spreading fear.

However, peace and stability gained through oppression is always fragile and short-lived. If nothing else, one can hope that our chief adviser has realised this by sharing a stage with the likes of Musharraf and Karzai.

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