Bangladesh’s Former Chief of Army Staff General Moeen Uddin Ahmed, A Villain or A Hero

Bangladesh’s Chief of Army Staff General Moeen Uddin Ahmed, the architect of Bangladesh’s 2007-2008 Caretaker Government (CTG), quietly retired June 14 2009. Though he retired without fanfare, Bangladeshis continue to debate whether Moeen should be celebrated or condemned for his role in the decision to cancel elections scheduled for January 2007 and his backing of a two-year Caretaker Government committed to holding elections in December 2008.

Debate aside, General Moeen fulfilled his two key promises: he helped ensure Bangladesh held free and fair national elections, and he stepped down from power at the end of his tenure.

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With his actions during the CTG and his willingness to follow the orders of the Prime Minister during the February 2009 Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) mutiny, Moeen proved the Bangladesh military understood its role vis–vis civilian authority, even if tensions continue to exist between the military and the civilian government.

Controversial, But Also a Man of His Word. Following the June 14 retirement of Chief of Army Staff General Moeen Uddin Ahmed, Bangladeshis are debating whether he was a hero or a criminal. Some argue that Moeen violated Bangladesh’s Constitution by delaying general elections scheduled for January 2007 and backing a Caretaker Government for two years. Others say that Moeen should be rewarded for his courage in stopping political unrest that was spiralling out of control in late 2006 and early 2007.

On July 16 2007, Bangladeshi Police escorted Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh to a Dhaka court. Hasina was facing $4 million graft charges, was taken to a court but the hearing was adjourned after defence lawyers said she was ill and asked for bail. Photo: REUTERS

Regardless of their opinions about Moeen’s actions, Bangladeshis cannot deny that Moeen fulfilled two basic pledges: to return Bangladesh to democracy and to step down at the end of his tenure as Chief of Army Staff. The elections of 2008 were the most free and fair in Bangladesh’s history. Throughout the tenure of the 2007-2008 CTG, there was much speculation about Moeen’s intentions, including theories about Moeen taking on a larger political role. Publicly and privately, Moeen disputed these theories and vowed he only wanted to ensure elections and serve as Chief of Army Staff. When the CTG in June 2008 extended Moeen’s tenure as a Chief of Army Staff to June 2009, many pointed to the extension as proof of Moeen’s desire to retain power. Moeen’s quiet retirement on June 14 ended this argument.

Moeen and the BDR mutiny

After the democratically-elected Awami League government took over in January 2009, Moeen demonstrated commitment to the concept of civilian control over the military. During the February mutiny of the BDR border force, in which BDR enlisted men murdered scores of their Army superiors, Moeen followed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s orders. Though many in the Bangladesh Army were urging immediate use of force to put down the mutiny, the Prime Minister first tried to negotiate with the mutineers in an effort to avoid a military operation that would have resulted in casualties not only among the mutineers and Army but also among Dhaka residents living near the site of the mutiny.

When negotiations failed, she ordered Moeen to have the Army encircle the BDR Headquarters, and she gave the mutineers an ultimatum. At that point, the mutineers surrendered, and the Army did not have to put down the mutiny forcefully.

In the mutiny’s aftermath, many in the Army questioned the Prime Minister’s decisions and criticized Moeen for following her orders. In a volatile March meeting between the Prime Minister and a large gathering of Army officers, mid-level and senior Army officers verbally attacked the Prime Minister, shouted at her and tore off insignia on their uniforms in protest of her handling of the mutiny and in anguish over the loss of their comrades. One of Moeen’s last acts as Chief of Army Staff was to dismiss seven of these officers for disrespectful conduct in front of the Prime Minister.

The dismissal of these officers was reportedly ordered by the Prime Minister after the Government of Bangladesh received evidence that they continued to agitate against the civilian government in the months after the mutiny. The Government of Bangladesh reportedly arranged to have the dismissals occur under the watch of Moeen to allow new Chief of Army Staff General Md. Abdul Mubeen to assume office without the cloud of the dismissals over his head (reftel). Reaction within the Army to the officers’ dismissal was muted. Even among those who believed the punishment too harsh, many apparently understood the dismissed officers had crossed the line with their behavior in the meeting with the Prime Minister.

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Moeen disavows some DGFI actions

At a farewell dinner in Moeen’s honor hosted by United Nations Resident Coordinator Renata Dessallien, Moeen claimed he had not sanctioned certain initiatives of the military’s Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) during the tenure of the CTG. He claimed the counter-terrorism chief under the CTG, Brigadier General A.T.M. Amin, did not keep him informed about, nor did Moeen approve many of his actions.

During the CTG, DGFI led efforts to tackle Bangladesh’s endemic corruption by arresting and building legal cases against hundreds of politicians, business people and government officials, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the Leader of the Opposition, Begum Khaleda Zia. DGFI’s conduct during the CTG drew wide criticism, including allegations of torture of suspects in custody. DGFI’s Amin also foolishly attempted to engineer the creation of an Islamic political party out of the domestic terrorist group Harakat ul-Jihad-Islami-Bangladesh (HUJI-B), allegedly in the misguided belief that as a legitimate political party, HUJI-B would be easier to monitor and control.

Moeen’s Future Unclear

As of mid-July, Moeen’s future is uncertain. He is vacationing with his family in Singapore and the United States, where he will be inducted into the U.S. Army’s Hall of Fame at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Begum Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), some in the Awami League, and others who were targeted for investigation under the CTG have demanded Moeen’s prosecution for crimes against the Constitution. At the same time, there is speculation that the GOB could name Moeen Bangladesh’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said publicly she would not seek retaliation against CTG leaders, including Moeen, in spite of such calls from within her own party.

The BNP and other politicians, however, have not made such promises. On July 12, former state minister for power and energy, Iqbal Hasan Mahmud Tuku, filed a defamation suit against Moeen, asking for a compensation of approximately $14.7 million for spreading false information about corruption in his ministry during the BNP government from 2001-2006.

A Dhaka court ordered Moeen to submit a written reply to the accusations by August 16 and to explain within three weeks why his personal property should not be attached as a security deposit pending resolution of the case. Tuku’s counsel, senior BNP leader Moudud Ahmed, told the media that the allegation against Tuku, one of the 218 politicians detained by the CTG, was part of Moeen’s strategy to harass politicians and weaken political parties like the BNP. According to Moudud, many alleged victims of torture and harassment by the CTG were preparing to file criminal cases again Moeen.

Ghost of Pakistan Army

Civil-military relations in Bangladesh are troubled. The civilian government lacks formal lines of communication with the military and lacks institutions that clearly define civil-military relationships and roles. The BDR mutiny underscored this. General Moeen’s actions before and after the 2008 elections, however, illustrate that there is a basic understanding in Bangladesh of the military’s role vis–vis the civilian government. Under Moeen’s leadership, the military went back to the barracks after a democratically-elected government took power, and it remained there, even when tested during the BDR mutiny.

In part due to its role in United Nations peace-keeping operations and its strong relationships with counterparts in countries like the United States, the Bangladesh military is slowly evolving into a professional force that eschews a political role.

This is good news in a region where there is a history of military leaders intervening in politics. We hope to help the Government of Bangladesh focus on improving civil-military relations beginning with seminars hosted by the Asia Pacific Center for Strategic Studies (APCSS) this fall. The bad news is Bangladesh military’s senior officers directly involved in billions of dollars of corruptions, money laundering, and embellishment to establish a puppet civil government such as the Sheikh Hasina government.

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