Friday, September 29, 2006

Swadee Khrab General: Some Answers Questioned

A soldier gives a group of Thai girls some water after they danced to entertain the soldiers occupying the area around parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, Sept. 25, 2006. The tanks and soldiers who led Thailand's military coup have become a tourist attraction with hundreds of people arriving daily to pose for pictures with them, and vendors selling toys and drinks in a carnival-like atmosphere. (AP Photo/Ed Wray)

As tanks rolled down the streets of Bangkok, democracy rolled back 15 years. But did it? The anti-Thaksin paper Nation claimed “It was a necessary evil, if you look at it. There were no other options to end this political cul-de-sac.” But are they correct?

Last April I spent a month in Bangkok at the height of the political stalemate that gripped Thailand and the time the opposition boycotted polls. Even though the capital got ready to welcome leaders from the world to celebrate 60 years of their revered King’s accession to the thrown, it was clear that they were heading into murky waters of instability in the future. A chat with a tuk tuk driver or a hotel receptionist in Bangkok gave the same result – they lost faith in Thaksin.

Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT – Thais Love Thais) party swept into power with a landslide in 2001. The nation (both the country and the paper) was in love with the self-made media savvy billionaire. This ex-policeman turned businessman turned politician made his money from interests in telecommunication. He promised to run the Asian “tiger economy” like he ran his company. Unfortunately that is not how you run a country. As we see from the troubles in boardrooms across the world, entrepreneurs who build empires often cannot see the difference between company and self. Thaksin, many people claimed, made that crucial mistake. He bent rules to fit him. He appointed friends and family to important positions in the government, judiciary and even in the army. And then he committed the most cardinal of sins. He became arrogant. Drunk by his power he forgot he had a country of 70 million who put him where he was. In five years he went from the future of the Thai to its past. Thais it seems did not “Rak” him anymore.

However there is an interesting point to note. By all accounts TRT particularly and Thaksin personally remained hugely popular in the impoverished rural Thailand. Even many of his detractors accept that if free and fair polls are to be held today TRT will do better than well in many provinces, specially the upcountry areas. Thaksin’s loss of popularity it seems in mostly rooted in the middle class Bangkok, and not in the rest of the country. So can we deduce that the middle class “intelligentsia” overthrew a popular and democratically elected leader? Did people who were singing praises for him a few years back now made it inevitable for the Army to take charge?

Someone had once claimed “leave no answer unquestioned.” In that spirit, will the answer Nation newspaper gave, – “necessary evil… no other option”, hold? Coup d’etat leader General Sonthi’s contention was that if they did not send in battle tanks to the Government House, Thaksin would have done so himself. Did he not order Sonthi’s removal? Did he not declare emergency?

Even an amateur Thailand watcher will tell you the deciding factor in any political action in that country is the Monarch. Though having only constitutional powers like that of the Queen of England, King Bhumibol Adulyadej has unyielding sway over his people. It is believed that leading up to the election in April and subsequently, his Majesty was displeased with where politics was heading. In a nation that reads a lot into his action, he appointed to his Privy Council ex-generals that Thaksin had crossed. That itself should have been a hint enough for the astute Prime Minister to tone down his rhetoric. But he was deluded with the empty victory he won in April, and fell pry to his own political game. It seemed that he checkmated himself. There was nowhere to go. The Opposition, smelling blood, dug in their heels and ensured that TRT did not have the opportunity to show their strength through an election.

Next few months will be quite interesting to a political aficionado looking at Thailand. Here we have a democratically elected successful leader overthrown in a popular move by the Army swearing loyalty a heredity ruler in the name of people power. It does not get more ironic than this.

Every tale should have a lesson. Are there any for us in Bangladesh to take? Some of the similarities are uncanny. Both nations have a history of military rulers. Democracies in both countries were established in earnest in the early 1990s. Both TRT and BNP can claim a landslide mandate to govern. And in 5 years both have become a millstone around the neck of democracy. Due to corruption, nepotism and inefficiency both lost their moral justification to rule.

Does this mean we might see tanks in the streets of Dhaka? Some scenarios do lend itself to that possibility. Say Justice KM Hasan does not relinquish his constitutional duty to lead the caretaker government. The Leader of the Opposition has already asked her supporters to land up in Dhaka with whatever tools they can muster. What option does the President have but to call on the Armed Forces to maintain peace? Or say elections do take place and BNP wins, AL will surely cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war. Or say the other way around. AL wins and like the current government, believes the votes were cast in support of them instead of being against their adversary.

Any astute commentator will tell you what private opinion polls show, Bangladesh is sick and tired of both the main political parties and their empty promises. As a New Market trader reasoned “they are two sides of the same fish.” We are aching for an alternative. And if the valiant men in green want to walk into Sangsad Bhaban, I strongly believe they will be greeted as liberators with a thunderous ovation.

This brings me to the central question that needs to be posed. Will promotion of democracy be a justification for the suspension of the Constitution? It seems our experiments with democracy have not yielded the results we were expecting. Holding free and fair elections every five years does not mean anything as long as the people we have voted for do not go into Parliament and debate why the power crisis will take 5 years to resolve. Or why we must pay Tk 100 for a kg of onions, or why Quami madrassa will get the same recognition as a graduate degree. As long as there cannot be floor crossing in the Sangsad, or Parliamentary Party meetings, or free party office-bearer elections, can we truly say we have democracy in practice? Till our Judiciary, our bureaucracy, our army, our business, our media, our civil society are above political bickering and influence, how can we say that we have a democracy to protect? It is simple maths that if you take two steps forward and a step back –you are still a step forward. Thank you General Sonthi, or as they would say in Thailand, Khrob kuan khrab, you might just have shown us new marching steps.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Spell Chequer

4 thos of u who r addicted to the greatest invention since Hale Berry:

Owed two a Spell Chequer

Eye halve a spelling chequer
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea
Eye strike a key and type a word
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am wrong oar write
It shows me strait a weigh
As soon as a mist ache is maid
It nose bee four two long
And eye can put the error rite
Its rare lea ever wrong
Eye have run this poem threw it
am shore your pleased two no
Its letter perfect awl the weigh
My chequer tolled me sew.

Martha Snow, from The Funny Times


Sunday, September 24, 2006

Pope's Little Blunder!

A lot has been said and written about the Pope's unusually provocative comments in Germany. So all I'm doing is posting a cartoon that I believe highlights the crux of the issue. Note the "See-Hear-Do-No-Evil" stain glass in the back!

To read some excellent postings on the subject try:
3rd World View at
Inspiration and Creative Thought at


As a lot of you might be aware we have a JV IT company with PeopleGroup of Denmark. Started about 20 months ago, we are now amongst the largest IT exporters in Bangladesh and are doing better than anticipated.

The company has recently relaunched their website which I hope you will have a chance to visit and encourage us.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Black Knight : Official Game of the Police

Given the pachant of our Police force to use - well.. force, I thought this game will help you enjoy bashing up people with batons!! (And in the process collecting mooonneeeyyyy!)

Happy swinging!

Miniclip Games - Black Knight
Black Knight

The King has created a new way of getting taxes from his people.

Play this free game now!!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Article in Daily Star

Daily Star has published a slightly modified version (edited for newspaper by me) of my post "What if people power is not right". It is viewable at [] or by clicking on the headline of this post which will take you to the relevant page on the Daily Star site.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Let The People Speak!

“Naturally the common people don't want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

- Hermann Goering at Nuremberg Trial (a leading member of the Nazi Party, second in command of the Third Reich)

Thanks to Razib Rashedin of Me, Myself and Bangladesh [] for posting this originally.

Is this quote not perfect when you look at with the perspective of the recent Phulbari incident. We have been told by that the people are against the Phulbari open pit mining project. But have we asked the people what they think? I am sure Mr. Anu Mohammed will say he has. We need to examine very closely what questions were asked. As any market researcher worth his reputation will point out the curse of his trade is "leading questioning". If we ask a illiterate farmer if he is okay for “East India Company” to come and take over his land – what do you think would be his reaction? Now if we were to ask the same farmer that we will provide him with three square meals a day, education for his children and a future for his grandchildren only if he sells his land at today’s market price? What do you think his answer will be?

Let us not bring innocent people of Phulbari as pawns of our deadly chess game. End of the day our leaders in all sides of the argument have taken on the responsibility to not only protect our rights but ensure our prosperity.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

What if People Power is not right?

Are we throwing the baby out with the bath water?

A junior minister of the BNP government and the Rajshahi mayor in their infinite wisdom has decided what will be Bangladesh’s FDI and Coal Policy. They have as well given the mass uprising that had been instigated with false and misleading information by the leftist anti-investment (and business) “intellectuals”, official endorsement.

Zafar Sobhan in his post-editorial piece in yesterday’s Daily Star [] made the wisest argument I’ve heard in a long time. He is so right. Asia Energy deal might be suspect and we should examine it but does it mean we let this guide our national policy? At this end we are overlooking the benefits accruing to the nation. A project of this magnitude does not only have direct benefits but also through a multiplier effect have ripple effects across the economy.

Few simple examples: say to transport the coal to its markets the rail and port networks have to develop. Can you imagine what benefits it would give North Bengal? And what about the hundreds of people employed in the area to support those who have been employed by AEC. Shopkeepers and teacher; policemen and rickshaw pullers; cleaners and security gaurds – the list goes on. And think of the ancillary industries that could be developed using coal as raw material. Project of this nature would have made Dinajpur prosperous and the nation with it.

We should examine what are the arguments put up against AEC’s project:

1. Open Pit vs. Deep Shaft Mining: the big debate stems around the choice of mining methods. The productivity of the Open Pit mining (upto 90% as opposed to 20%) itself should have been sufficient an argument. But added to that there are other benefits of this method. For example Shaft mining are notoriously hazardous to human health. Fire, cave-ins, gas leak all lead to quite a few disasters each year across the world. Our Barapukaria mines itself is no exception. Another thing to note is that the coal basin in the area is quite deep underground. I believe more than 400 meters down. This makes shaft mining quite unproductive and unmanageable.

2. Ground Water Management: Experts have rightly pointed out that there is a major issue with ground water system. Apparently the deposit is under an underground aquifer. So to extract the coal all the water has to be pumped out. This creates two problems. Firstly the question of what to do with the excess water that comes up and secondly the general water level of the area might go down. Both these issues need to be managed. Despite what some people are saying, the water will not be just pumped out into the open. Creating an artificial lake and re-using the water in the mining process can be a solution. Why, an irrigation system for the entire North Bengal itself can be developed. There are examples in South India where Chennai’s water supply comes from mines hundreds of miles away. We could solve the water crisis that has hit Dhaka through this method.

3. Environmental Management: The idea of sooth falling all over the area and creating black skies are as old as the demise of the British Mining Industry. New environmental systems can easily mitigate such issues. Coal unlike in shaft mining is actually dug up by giant excavators and human exposure to it is minimum. Of course a proper environmental management procedure needs to be in place. I understand that the newer open pit quarries are not only up to Kyoto prescribed emission levels but can actually earn tradable credits.

4. Displacement of people: A side effect of this project will be the displacement of people. Now be it 40,000 (as AEC claims) or 100,000 (as Anu Mohammed does) there will be a lot of people loosing their ancestral land. This is not a new thing. Building of any large infrastructure project will result in this. Say for example the new Expressway between Dhaka and Chittagong that is being talked about; do you think this will only be on land currently owned by the Government? However proper compensation for this loss needs to happen. This is not only market price of the land being paid, but also finding long term earning potential of those displaced. Jobs that will be created should of course go to those displaced first.

5. Vast Areas that are required: I’ve heard a few arguments of how the national mining policies have guidelines of how much land a mine should or can use. One needs to re-examine this. Is it not common sense that we should utilise the maximum amount of land so that we have the maximum return? Also the non-coal earth that will be dug out needs to be stored in proper manner so that after all the coal has been brought out the area can be re-filled and re-claimed to be used as farm land.

6. Royalty Earning: there is a lot of confusion regarding this one. 20% vs. 6% the argument goes. Well for one the National Coal Policy has not been agreed upon as yet. We need to ensure that Bangladesh benefits to the most degree possible. If this means 20% or more – so be it. We should not let this negotiation be done on anyone’s terms but ours. But does it mean that we will not have a new coal mining policy? No. All stakeholders need to buy in.

7. Export of Coal: As in the case of Natural gas, we are rightly very possessive about what happens to our limited resources. Some argument has been tabled that most large coal producing countries do not export their coal. That is because of their domestic demands. Energy hungry countries like China need all that they can dig up. I agree that we need to find enough value addition that we can do to the product in our economy. We need to diversify our energy basket and take the pressure of producing electricity from natural gas (that having other use) to coal (which in this case has a very rich calorific content). This means that if we can create a substantial domestic market at prices that will allow AEC to offset production costs and earn a reasonable profit, there is no reason why we should not limit (or stop) the amount of coal that they can export.

8. Debate: This argument is my favourite. I hear everyone say that the deal should not be “against national interest”. Of course! Is that not a given? I am being na├»ve here. Given Bangladesh’s history, this has not always been the case. So yes a national debate should happen. And the deal needs to be transparent. But how can this happen? The Government and the Opposition (our elected representative- who have been given the mandate by us to decide this matter amongst other things) should ideally be discussing it in the Jatiya Sangsad. But you and I both know that except for getting duty free cars that body is not good for much! So where can this debate happen? Currently via proxy in the media this is being conducted. While the scrutiny by our journalist friends have ensured we don’t get a raw deal, it is not a very conducive or conclusive manner of debate. And running street battles in Phulbari is certainly not the way to go about the issue. Brings me back to square one – debate must happen, but where? Answer to this one I don’t know.

At the end of a week of agitation, the Coal, Natural Gas, Port Protection Committee is claiming “people’s victory” and celebrations are in the streets of Phulbari and our TV screens. But is it a victory for anyone and everyone? I believe, in the long run, it certainly is not for Bangladesh. We have put in doubt (if not back by half a decade) the much-needed foray into coal mining. A long shadow has been cast on our exemplary record when it comes to sovereign dealings. Further FDI in areas of infrastructure and basic industry development has taken a few leaps back.

And scariest thing of all we have given the people idea that by being able to create a false fervor we can achieve almost anything. So when we give into students protesting and demanding that examination dates be postponed so that they can watch football; when we give into employees and run loss making airline; when we give into agitating typists and ensure the growth of bureaucracy; we also give out a signal that the loudest (and not always the brightest) is mightiest! Unfortunately there are times when people do get it wrong.