Milbus, and the new godfathers
Milbus is a term coined by Ayesha Siddiqa, a British-educated Pakistani scholar, to describe the multi-billion dollar business empire run by her country’s army. In her groundbreaking book ‘Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’ (see here for a review), she defines a milbus as any capital appropriated by soldiers outside the defence budget. Eventually, these business ventures become impediments against the army’s withdrawal from politics. In the short run, the businesses can be used to manipulate the political system to help the ruling regime. The roots of the Pakistani milbus go back to the 1950s, when Ayub Khan became the first general in modern South Asia to conquer his own country and promote himself. Nearly 50 years on, are we seeing a milbus rising in Bangladesh?
An Economist article titled ‘The Clean-up’ published in November commences with this: “THE problem is that the mafia in Bangladesh were the political parties,” correctly observes a political analyst stuck in one of Dhaka’s notorious traffic jams.
Anyone who has watched any Hollywood crime thriller would know that one of the things the mafia does is extortion — taking money in exchange for ‘protection’ against violence. It is interesting to note the beginning of the last paragraph then: For the regime, the anti-graft drive has had some useful side-effects. The intelligence services are systematically acquiring shares in private media companies, by offering the release from detention of their owners in return.
The print version of the previous Economist report on Bangladesh never reached Dhaka as the relevant pages were mysteriously missing. I’m not sure whether this report did reach Dhaka, but its allegation is very disturbing. Over at the Unheard Voices, there is a list of the print media owners in Bangladesh. We understand that immediately after the coup last January, a retired army officer assumed control of Channel 1, a private TV channel owned by a close associate of Tarique Rahman. CSB News, a news channel, was shut down summarily in September.
Political parties were the mafia, and the politicians the godfathers, how often have we heard these in the past year? It is certainly indisputable that during the late 1990s, and particularly during the second Khaleda government, members of the the ruling parties tried to grab control of whatever they could. Indeed, that was the very system of democracy we set up after 1990. In that system, we elected a party to power for five years and that party had the legal control over institutions ranging from the local football club to the presidency of the Republic. To retain, or gain, that control meant bitter political rivalries. It was this rivalry that brought us the political deadlock of late 2006. Our disconnected chaterring classes often wonder about the gullibility of the political workers who give away so much for the benefits of the cults of Mujib and Zia. These pundits miss the perfect rationality of the partymen’s actions, even if those actions resemble those of the mafia.
And now, if the Economist report is right, it seems that we have a new mob in town. These new godfathers, egged on by the bhodrolokes , are behaving in exactly the way their corporate interests suggest they would. If the Economist is right, we probably are seeing the rise of milbus in Bangladesh. And if the Economist report is wrong, then the Government of Bangladesh should explicitly protest the article. Dear reader, whatever you felt in the morning of 12 January 2006, if you want peace in Bangladesh then this development should worry you.
In these dark times, when the mainstream media can’t, or won’t, publish what is news by any standard definition, bloggers need to step up. You have been great in breaking Bankgate to the world, or covering the midnight coup in BNP in real time. Now we need you to come forward and share what you know about the rising milbus / new godfathers in Bangladesh.