Graham Greene’s The Quiet American was published in 1955, after the Dien Bien Phu, but years before America bumbled into Vietnam. A film version was released in 2002, after Tora Bora, but before America bumbled into Iraq. Without giving away the story, anymore than you can discern from the trailer above, this is one of the best work on the unintended consequences of American intervention.
Americans are, of course, interested in Bangladesh too. They have been for a while. In the post-9/11 world, how can they be not interested in one of the largest Muslim countries in the world? And their interest has been registered not as quietly as was the case in Greene’s Saigon. In 2007, as in now, their interest was expressed vocally. Nonetheless, the plot went awry in 2007. Will this time be different?
What does the United States — indeed, the West in general — want in Bangladesh?
Let me quote fellow blogger Shafquat Rabbee:
Contrary to the clichéd examples cited by both the extreme right and the left, it is unlikely that the Western powers are hatching a conspiracy to create a failed state in Bangladesh. From the pure standpoint of political game-theory, there should not be any rational desire among the Westerners to create yet another headache in a Muslim majority country for no apparent strategic or economic gain. In fact, given Bangladesh’s geographic location and demographic composition, a stable functioning government in Bangladesh is, perhaps, the biggest strategic interest of the West. On top of that, a series of recent survey results will make the Western powers quite cautious to go against the popular will of the people and create unnecessary anti-West sentiments.
The emphasis on ‘a stable functioning government’ is mine. In 2006-07, as is the case now, we saw a political stand off between the two parties over the ensuing election that risked the very possibility of a stable functioning government in Bangladesh. We don’t need to get into who’s fault was 1/11, nor debate who conspired with whom when — the relevant point here is that seven winters ago, American, and British, and European diplomats openly intervened in Bangladeshi politics, and without their intervention, 1/11 might not have happened.
Did 1/11 achieve a stable functioning government? Perhaps a bloodbath was avoided in January 2007. Or perhaps the bloodbath was never seriously on the cards, and the westerners were duped by ambitious local generals and second tier politicians tired of the ruling matriarchs. Perhaps, some day, someone will write a well researched political history of Bangladesh.
Whatever respite the intervention might have brought, we now know it was to be temporary. We now know that 1/11 regime’s attempt to remove the two matriarchs would fail. We now know that their attempt to create a King’s Party out of the two main parties would just end up worsening anti-democratic tendencies in one, and aggravate factionalism in the other. We now know that none of these have helped with stable functioning government in Bangladesh.
Seven years on, we are in the midst of another election related political crisis, except this time the risk to stable functioning government seems to be even higher. The parties have switched side, but it’s the same politics. The singers changed, but the song remains the same.
Have Americans learned from the interventions past? Do they understand that a free and fair election participated by everyone is the necessary condition for a stable functioning government in Bangladesh?
Such an election is by no means sufficient for a stable functioning government. After all, we have had four such elections, and stability remains elusive. There is a high likelihood that even if all parties join in a free and fair election, we will be back here five years on.
But there is a near certainty that an election without a major party will make a stable functioning government practically impossible in Bangladesh.