The American public may have paid this little attention. But three prominent South Asian generals have just completed politically significant sojourns in the United States, raising dust and debates in this part of the world.
The former Pakistan president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, fueled at least two major debates during his 40-day lecture tour of the US from September 14. Former Bangladesh army chief Gen. Moeen U Ahmed, who left for the US soon after his retirement in June, returned home on October 31 to face court cases and the continuing controversy over his political role in the period of about two years before the country’s parliamentary elections.
Still in uniform, the third celebrity, Sri Lanka’s Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) Sarath Fonseka, kicked up the hottest of this clutch of controversies during his stay in the US from October 23 to November 4. Praised and promoted as the terminator of the rebel Tamil Tigers, the general figures prominently in postwar politics in the island-nation. He left the American shores only after threatening to create a serious diplomatic problem between Colombo and Washington.
Democracy, of course, has featured as a major issue in debates concerning all three soldiers. During his media interviews in the US, Musharraf made statements suggesting that electoral democracy has not served American objectives exactly as well as the army rule in Pakistan under him did. Ahmed, too, continued his war on democracy in Bangladesh on American soil.
General Fonseka’s case fell apparently in a different category. The nearly deified commander of Sri Lankan troops in the final assault on the once feared and formidable Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was pushed into a democratic battle. The move to make the general the candidate of an opposition combine against President Mahinda Rajapaksa, initiated soon after a midterm general election (two years ahead of schedule) was announced, gathered momentum during his quasi-official US visit.
Only apparently did the case fall into a special category. The other two generals, too, had started off with suggested US support for their political gambits even if they were not entering the electoral arena.
According to well-informed Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, the US first made contact with Musharraf “in a meaningful way” when he was still a lieutenant-general and a corps commander at Mangla in Pakistan-administered Kashmir (October 1995 – October 1998). He is said to have “approached the Americans through a Pakistani mediator.” The move was seen as “unusual and meaningful.”
Musharraf took over Pakistan in 1999. A couple of years later came 9/11 and the consolidation of his alliance with George Bush’s Washington. The rest is history that needs no repetition.
We have no comparable story of the first US contact with General Ahmed, a graduate of the United States Army Command and Staff College, besides Harvard University and the Center for Security Studies of Hawaii. Clearly, however, he did enjoy Washington’s tacit support when the army under him scrapped the general election slated for January 2007, paving the way for an unelected regime for nearly two years.
Not comparable at all is the story of the Sri Lankan general, who may contest the general election, probably by April 2010, if the opposition alliance convinces him (though this remains a real “if” until now).
Obvious enough is the irony of Fonseka, admired by his fans for his articulated contempt for politicians, contesting the polls. The irony was heightened with reports that the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had requested an interview with him on alleged rights abuses in the anti-LTTE operations. His reported consent to the request was greeted with great surprise in Sri Lanka, given that the opposition wanted him as its common candidate above all for his war-hero status.
Colombo swung into action; Sri Lanka’s external affairs ministry summoned US Ambassador Patricia Butenis to warn that it would be illegal to interrogate Fonseka on the human rights issue. She was told that all war-related information was “privileged” and could not be “shared with a third party without the government’s consent.”
The diplomatic counter-offensive did help to control damage – not only to Colombo but, equally, to Fonseka’s swashbuckling image as a Tiger-slayer and to his newfound constituency with a Sinhala-nationalist core. He has returned home without compromising Colombo on human rights and with his own halo intact as well.
Musharraf has also addressed a home audience while upsetting his official American hosts on a sensitive issue. He began the tour by telling a television channel that US funds, given to Pakistan to fight terror during his tenure, were used to strengthen defenses against India.
He made up for this, however, by telling a gathering of students that “the US and Pakistani intelligence services were closing in on Osama Bin Laden five years ago but suddenly lost track.” This cannot be music to many ears in Pakistan, where US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised a hornet’s nest recently by saying she could not believe the country’s rulers did not know of Osama’s whereabouts or could not capture him.
General Ahmed, who once ruled out the return of Bangladesh to “elective democracy,” has resumed his offensive by pooh-poohing all allegations against him as “mere propaganda” and “a political game.” Many may see a serious warning in his statement: “I have served the nation and I am still trying to do so and hope to continue also in future.”
Fonseka, of course, will seemingly play a very different role if he joins the electoral fray. If he does become the main opposition candidate against Rajapaksa, however, the contest may not exactly serve the cause of democracy. The general, who said not long ago that “I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese,” represents no real alternative to the current rulers. A battle of hawks at the hustings cannot bring ethnic peace back to the emerald isle.